Tuesday, April 26, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Huntsman: Winter's War

The Huntsman: Winter's War was written by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin, and directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan.

Spiliotopoulos has written a ton of direct-to-video Disney sequels, such as The Jungle Book 2, The Lion King 1 1/2, Tarzan II, Cinderella III: A Twist In Time and The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning. Apparently he's the go-to guy when you need a quick followup to a popular fairy tale film. He also wrote the screenplay for the 2014 Hercules (the one starring The Rock), proving he's a sadistic bastard who hates humanity.

Mazin previously wrote Rocket Man, The Specials, Scary Movie 3 and 4, School For Scoundrels and The Hangover Part II. It looks like Mazin also hates the human race and is trying to hurt us all deeply.

Nicolas-Troyan was the special effects supervisor for Snow White And The Huntsman. This is his first time in the director's chair.

Confusingly, The Huntsman: Winter's War is both a prequel AND a sequel to Snow White And The Huntsman. The first half hour or so takes place years before the original film, while the rest happens shortly after. It's like the Godfather 2 of fairy tale movies. In structure, that is. Definitely not in quality.

The movie features an A-List cast including Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain— both of whom ought to know better than to sign up for something like this. Chris Hemsworth and Charlize Theron were reportedly paid $10 million each to reprise their roles, so that may have had something to do with the quality cast.

So let's get to the question everyone's no doubt asking— why the hell is there no Snow White in this Snow White sequel? There doesn't seem to be any clear answer. There are rumors floating around alleging that Universal fired actress Kristen Stewart (who played Snow in the first film) because she had an affair with Rupert Sanders, the (married) director of the first film. Others claim the studio never had any plans to use Stewart in any sequels, intending all along to spin off Chris Hemsworth's Huntsman character into his own franchise. Who knows what really happened? 

If I had to guess I'd say they dropped her because of money. Believe it or not, four years ago when Snow White And The Huntsman was made, Kristen Stewart was the highest paid actress in Hollywood (the bloom's definitely off that particular rose now). It would not surprise me if they just couldn't afford to bring her back this time out.

Whatever your feelings about Kristen Stewart's acting talents, there's no denying that the absence of Snow White leaves an awkward hole in the film. The writers feel the need to address her truancy, explaining that due to the influence of the Magic Mirror, she's "not well" and unable to participate in the proceedings. This is realized through the magic of a couple of brief clips from the first film, and a body double seen only from the back (shades of Ed Wood and Plan 9 From Outer Space!). 

This feels like a slap in the face to fans of the character (and to Stewart herself, I suppose). In the first film, Snow White went from a lowly prisoner to the badass commander of an entire army. She even killed Queen Ravenna singlehandedly! And now we're told that she's holed up in her castle, overcome by an obsession with a stupid mirror? Better they should never have mentioned her at all.

I have to admit, I remembered absolutely nothing about the original film. I know I saw it, as I wrote a review of it four years ago. Apparently it was so spectacularly unmemorable that every aspect of it faded completely from my mind. I watched it again right before seeing the new film, and I swear it was like seeing it for the first time.


The Plot:
Many years before the events of the first film, the evil Ravenna (played by Charlize Theron) hoodwinks a King into marrying her, then kills him and inherits his kingdom, because every gal needs a hobby. We also discover that Queen Ravenna has a younger sister named Freya (played by Emily Blunt), who she loves so much she never talked about her at all in the first film.

Freya has a secret and forbidden affair with the Duke of Blackwood. Ravenna finds out about the affair, and that Freya is pregnant. She learns the child will grow up to become "fairest of them all," something Ravenna cannot abide. Shortly after Freya gives birth, Ravenna uses the Jedi Mind Trick or something on the Duke, compelling him to kill his own daughter. Well, that took a dark turn, didn't it? When Freya finds her dead child, she flies into a rage, which wakens her dormant ice powers. She kills the Duke and flees into the north.

Elsa, er, I mean Freya uses her powers to build a massive ice palace in the north. She sends out regular raiding parties to capture children, training them to become deadly warriors. Among these abducted children are Eric and Sara. She warns her child army that love is forbidden in her kingdom, because it only leads to misery and heartache. Well, I can't argue with her there.

Time passes. Seven years before the start of the first film, Eric (played by Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (played by Jessica Chastain) have grown up to become Freya's two best warriors. Eric's a master with an axe, while Sara's an expert archer. They're also secretly in love, and vow never to leave one another's side, brazenly tempting the screenwriting gods. Sara gives Eric her heirloom medallion, announcing they're now "married." Freya finds out about their forbidden love, and zaps a large ice wall between them. Eric watches helplessly as Sara is seemingly killed on the other side of the wall by a fellow huntsman. Riddled with grief, Eric escapes the ice palace. He then wanders the realm, drowning his sorrows with massive amounts of booze.

The movie then jumps completely over the events of Snow White And The Huntsman, which I'm sure can't possibly confuse the audience. It's now several months after that film. Snow White's husband King William meets with Eric in the forest. He says Snow isn't doing well, as she's become obsessed with Ravenna's magic mirror. It seems the mirror's now talking to her (?), much like the One Ring. William ordered the Mirror taken to Sanctuary (the magical fairy realm from the first movie) for safe keeping. Unfortunately the Mirror was stolen en route. William asks Eric to recover the Mirror and make sure it gets to Sanctuary. Eric agrees. William sends two dwarves, Nion (played by Nick Frost, reprising his role from Snow White And The Huntsman) and his half brother Gryff, along with Eric. I guess due to downsizing throughout Snow White's kingdom, they couldn't afford to send seven dwarves this time.

At an inn, Eric and the dwarves are attacked by Freya's hunstmen. They're rescued by a mysterious, hooded figure with a bow and arrow. Gosh, I wonder who that could be? Turns out it's Eric's "wife" Sara, who's not dead after all! Gasp! She's furious with Eric, who she saw leave her for dead when Freya erected the ice wall between them. Eric tells her that's not what happened, swearing he saw her killed. He figures out that in addition to physically separating them, Freya caused each to have visions to emotionally drive them apart.

Sara doesn't buy the whole "magic visions" thing, and feels betrayed by Eric. The two spar for a while in an effort to eat up some screentime, and of course eventually reconcile, to absolutely no one's surprise.

Just then the four are caught in a snare by two female dwarves named Bromwyn and Doreena. Eric convinces them to help find the Magic Mirror. Despite the fact that Nion and Gryff hate all dwarvish women and think they're hideous, they warm up to these two diminutive ladies very quickly.

The group tracks the Magic Mirror to a goblin city, and after an underwhelming battle with the very gorilla-like goblin king, manage to steal it back. They take it to the borders of Sanctuary. Unfortunately before they can stash it there, Freya appears with her army. She reveals that Sara was working with her the whole time to get the Mirror. Gasp again! Nion and Doreena attack, but Freya freezes them solid and has them hauled back to her castle so they can be thawed out at the end of the movie. Whoops! Spoiler Alert! Eric tries to stop Freya, but Sara fires an arrow into his chest, seemingly killing him.

After Freya leaves with Sara, Gryff and Bromwyn see that Eric is still alive. Sara, the expert archer, deliberately shot an arrow into the medallion she gave him, making it appear she killed him. They head for Freya's palace to rescue Sara.

At the palace, Freya looks into the Magic Mirror and asks it who's the fairest of them all. The Mirror seems to melt, and transforms into Ravenna. Apparently seconds before she died in the first film, she uploaded her soul into the Mirror, and has been chilling inside until now. She begins making plans to kill Snow White and invade her kingdom, blatantly trying to usurp Freya's kingdom. Rwarrr! Cat fight!

Eric, Gryff and Bromwyn sneak into the ice palace. Eric's captured by Freya's huntsmen, and Ravenna sentences him and Sara to death. Eric manages to convince the huntsmen to revolt. Ravenna starts sprouting black spidery arms, which is a new power for her, and uses them to kill several of the huntsmen. Freya erects another ice wall to protect her and Ravenna. Eric and the others then simply start climbing the wall to get over it (a concept Donald Trump doesn't seem to understand).

Meanwhile the two sisters start arguing again. Freya realizes that the Duke killed their child because Ravenna zapped him with a spell (because she couldn't stand the idea of the child becoming more beautiful than her). Freya then turns against Ravenna, joining forces with Eric and Sara. Ravenna stabs Freya. Before she dies, she freezes the Magic Mirror, and Eric shatters it with his axe, causing Ravenna to shatter. Freya sees Eric and Sara embrace and says they're lucky, and then dies.

Freya's child army is freed, and Eric, Sara and the dwarves live happily ever after, until the next movie. Of course we see a gold-coated bird fly overhead, implying that Ravenna will be back yet again.

• Rarely have I seen a franchise that rewrites or outright ignores major events the way this one does. In order for this film to work, it has to negate much of what happened in the first movie. The biggest of these retcons is Freya The Ice Queen herself.

In Snow White And The Huntsman, Queen Ravenna had a very intimate relationship with her brother Finn. In fact they seemed more like lovers than siblings (gross). She even used her immortality powers to keep him young (well, young-ish) and alive far past his natural age. Ravenna even spoke about how Finn had has been at her side since they were children.

Note that never once in the first movie does Ravenna ever mention having a younger sister. Freya is a completely new character who's grafted onto this story to serve as a fill-in for Ravenna until she reappears. Retcon!

The first time we meet Eric in Snow White And The Huntsman, he's a hopeless drunk who's trying to drown his grief after the death of his beloved wife. At no time does he ever imply that she was anything other than a normal stay-at-home wife.

The Huntsman: Winter's War tramples all over that continuity by revealing that Eric's wife Sara is a skilled and accomplished huntsman, just like him! We also see that they were never actually wed in the traditional sense. Sara placed her medallion around Eric's neck, pronouncing them "man and wife" herself, without the benefit of clergy. And their "marriage" apparently lasted for a couple of hours at most, before Sara was seemingly killed. Recton again!

In Snow White And The Huntsman, Finn taunts Eric by telling him that he raped and murdered his wife (yikes!). This enrages Eric so much that he kills Finn. In The Huntsman: Winter's War, we see that Finn did no such thing. In fact he doesn't even appear in the film at all! As far as we know he never even met Sara! I suppose we could say that Finn lied in the first movie just to mess with Eric— he is a sadistic bastard after all. If that's the case, then his little joke backfired, as it caused him to get killed. Did someone say retcon?

In the first film the Magic Mirror contained a passive "Mirror Man" entity whose sole function was to always tell the truth. It's also implied that only Ravenna can see the Mirror Man, as Finn saw her seemingly talking to herself. In this film the Mirror is an evil, corrupting presence that compels anyone who gazes into it to kill everyone around them. In essence it's now become the One Ring, from The Lord Of The Rings.

I suppose I could be generous and say that Ravenna, who's stored her soul in the Mirror, has taken it over and is the one handing out these orders. It still seems like a major retcon to me though.

As I said, the script has to bend over backwards (and how) in order to work.

• I'm sure the fact that this movie features an Ice Queen with wintery superpowers has absolutely nothing to do with the phenomenal success of Disney's Frozen. Nope, all purely coincidental!

Seriously, Freya IS Elsa here. They might as well have gone all the way and just made her a CGI animated character.

• Missed opportunity: At no point does any character in the film tell Freya the Ice Queen to "Let it go."

• In a related note, Eric's wife Sara has wavy red hair, is an expert archer, and is suspiciously similar to Merida from Disney/Pixar's Brave.

• In the first film, Ravenna becomes Queen by marrying Snow White's father and then killing him. She does the same thing in the prequel part of this film. It's implied that she's done this many times before, tearing through kingdom after kingdom like a swarm of locusts through a field.

So just how big is this realm? You'd think after usurping eight or ten thrones over the years, news of her little scam would spread. Seems like after a while kings would start recognizing her and turn off the lights and pretend they're not home when she comes a knockin.'

• Liam Neeson is the narrator of the film. They get their money's worth out of him too, as he's forced to spout a ton of expository dialogue to set up the story, and then explain that we're jumping over everything that happened in the first film, as we go from prequel to sequel. I'm surprised he didn't lose his voice after all that narration.

• Chris Hemsworth's faux Scottish accent is much better this time around. Well... maybe not better, but at least it's consistent this time. It came and went quite a bit in the first movie.

• In Snow White And The Huntsman there were eight dwarves, played by an amazing group of character actors, including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Johnny Harris, Brian Gleeson and Nick Frost.

Apparently the studio could only afford one dwarf from the first film this time out, as Frost is the only actor to reprise his role.

• In the first movie the "Little People Of America" organization complained because Universal Studios cast actors of normal stature as dwarves and digitally shrank them, instead of hiring actual little people. I didn't hear a peep out of them this time out. Maybe they finally gave up complaining about such methods after The Hobbit films?

• When Eric first hooks up with Nion and Gryff, they go on and on at length about how much they hate all dwarf women, who they consider hideous and repulsive. Later we meet two female dwarves, Bromwyn and Doreena. The thing is, they're nowhere near as ghastly as the males implied. In fact they look about like everyone else in the film. Then minutes after the male dwarves meet the females, they start shamelessly and awkwardly flirting with them.

So... I guess the joke is that the males were exaggerating? Is that it?

• At one point Sara betrays Eric by revealing she's really working with Freya. She shoots him with an arrow and he falls dead to the ground.

Of course he's not really dead, since they're trying to set up a franchise with him as the star. Seconds after Freya and Sara leave, Eric comes back to life. Apparently Sara actually shot the medallion (the one she gave him) around his neck, which only made it look like she killed him. Wha…?

We clearly see the arrow sticking out of his chest after he falls. But when he wakes up, he yanks it out of the medallion, which is all of an eight of an inch thick. How the hell could an arrowhead stick into something that thin? Even worse, he holds up the medallion and there's no hole in the middle!

The only way any of this could work is if Sara shot him with a novelty suction cup arrow.

• Snow White And The Huntsman featured some interesting creature designs, such as trolls and fairies. Here we get some goblins who look pretty much like hairless gorillas. Oh, and Freya rides some half polar bear, half snow leopard thing, that's realized through the magic of circa 1995 CGI.

In fact everything in this film feels scaled down and smaller. The budget for the first film was $170 million, while this one was a mere $115 million, so that's no doubt why everything looks cheaper here.

The Huntsman: Winter's War is a completely unnecessary prequel/sequel hybrid that has to overwrite much of the first movie in order to work. It feels like a desperate attempt to set up a franchise by shifting the focus to the Huntsman character, who's honestly not all that interesting. I give it a C.

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