Pairing Jessica Chastain with Chris Hemsworth makes this grim Grimm fairy tale a surprising enchantment.
Love Is a Lie
It helps to see — or see again — Snow White and the Huntsman before taking on Winter’s War, a story which begins “long before happily ever after.” In the original installment, dastardly Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road) promises the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth, Thor) she’ll bring back his wife if he captures and returns the runaway Snow White.
That notion of the Huntsman’s wife sets the basis for this sequel, which actually bookends the events of Snow White. Eric, the Huntsman, meets the love of his life, Sara (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar), while the two are raised as child warriors under the watchful eye of jaded Queen Freya (Emily Blunt, Sicario).
Freya and Ravenna are sisters. Evil sisters, evil through and through. They both let their jealousy overcome them; it’s a jealousy surrounding love and the happiness found by others.
In Freya’s case, she’s actually the victim of her very own sister’s jealousy. Ravenna’s actions lead Freya to shun love — all love — and banish it from her kingdom. It’s a strategy that puts in doubt the kingdom’s ability to continue as a going concern if the populace can’t replenish itself, but this is fairy tale stuff so move along.
Eric and Sara kindle a romance in the thick of Freya’s chilly kingdom, but once Freya finds out about their illicit tryst, it’s game over. Through her sorcery, Freya separates the couple and provides each of them with a conflicting take on the other’s fate.
It is within this context, then, the events of Snow White and the Huntsman unfold. After the splitting of Sara and Eric, Winter’s War picks up again after Snow White seemingly defeats Ravenna and the storyline focuses on Freya’s kingdom and Ravenna’s never-ending jealousy, with Eric and Sara stuck in the middle.
Snow White and the Huntsman, by way of Ravenna’s extreme darkness, was certainly no Hallmark card for all of love’s labours. That “down on love” attitude, though, seeps to even darker depths in this tale, which pounds home time and again just what a rotten deal that love bug is and how destructive it can be.
Dang. Love makes people do stupid things.
And so does jealousy.
It’s kind of funny to note this sequel was written by a guy who’s co-written the Hangover sequels and a couple Scary Movie installments (Craig Mazin) collaborating with a guy who’s written a bunch of direct-to-video Disney sequels, including Tarzan II, Cindererella III and The Lion King 1 ½ (Evan Spiliotopoulos). O the wonders of Hollywood’s magic.
Love has no Hope
Kristen Stewart is conspicuously absent as Snow White. There’s a brief flashback with footage from Snow White and the Huntsman, but there’s also an awkward shot of Snow White from behind, clearly a stand-in taking Stewart’s place. Regardless of the politics and choices behind such matters, Stewart’s presence would’ve helped with continuity and alleviate some of the sense Winter’s War is a forced effort at cashing in on the original movie’s unexpected success.
Picking up the slack, though is the addition of Chastain and Blunt. Both do well in their roles, but Chastain in particular is outstanding. She makes the movie fun to watch and she makes for a strong, credible romantic interest for Hemsworth’s Huntsman.
There’s also a fair amount of ambition within the story and the overall production that ultimately allows the movie to thaw unfair expectations, overcome its own overwhelmingly dark beginning and find its way back to a pleasant fairy tale sensibility.
Even so, a tease of a possible third installment — “some fairy tales come true, some never end” — is a groan-inducing way to resurrect the chill-inducing ghost of crass commercialism.