At Oscar time every year, below-the-line departments like make-up, costumes, and production design tend to get lumped together in what’s called “the technical categories”. They tend to be underappreciated, but they shouldn’t be. Each can be critically important in casting a spell over the audience. But they can’t do all of the work. Which is more or less what they’re asked to do in the sumptuous-but-ultimately-hollow fairy tale campfest, The Huntsman: Winter’s War.
Technically a prequel to 2012’s also-lavishly flimsy box-office hit, Snow White and the Huntsman, the film looks absolutely stunning (especially Colleen Atwood’s lusciously medieval costumes, which feel like Game of Thrones by way of Christian Dior). But there’s nothing dramatically interesting or original beneath all of the spectacle. It’s the movie equivalent of a cake that’s all frosting. With the absence of Kristen Stewart’s Snow White this time around, what we’re left with is a quartet of scenery-chewing performances that are broad enough to be Kabuki theater. Charlize Theron, who makes Maleficent look like a wallflower, oozes insidious venom as the jealous bitch queen Ravenna. Emily Blunt matches her Freudian frostiness icicle-for-icicle as her scorned sister and rival, Freya. And Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain get to brawl, clinch, and try on ill-fitting Scottish accents as the love-struck huntsman and huntress out to prove that love, leather chaps, and presumably haggis, conquer all.
The story takes place years before the Snow White saga, with Theron’s wicked Ravenna betraying her sister thereby unleashing Freya’s Snowmiser ability to transform everything she touches to ice, including her own heart. Exiled to a snowy kingdom, Freya kidnaps and trains an army of warrior children – two of whom grow up to become Hemsworth’s Eric and Chastain’s Sara. Their love for one another so offends Freya that she separates them. (If she’s unlucky in love, everyone else will be too.) But years later, they reunite while looking for the fable’s enchanted mirror. Eric’s odyssey is only slightly more interesting thanks to a pair of diminutive comic-relief dwarves (Rob Brydon and Nick Frost).
Winter’s War was directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the man behind Snow White and the Huntsman’s Oscar-nominated special effects. And even if you didn’t know that, you could have guessed it. Because that’s exactly how he approaches the movie, doubling down on style over substance. (Did I mention the movie looks spectacular?) Too bad the story, which is commercially savvy enough to strip Disney’s Frozen for parts, is such a giant shrug of the shoulders. There’s a certain place on every movie lover’s menu for big-budget, eye-candy costume-a-paloozas – films that are all about over-the-top divas in dazzlingly ornate frocks going cheekbone-to-cheekbone as broadly as the sirens of the silent era. But there also needs to be more to them than just technical-category magic. It needs to touch your heart, not just your retinas. There needs to be urgency, shape, and emotional investment. In a word, a script. Otherwise, it’s just a two-hour Vogue fashion shoot highlighted by Emily Blunt riding bareback on a polar bear. C+