Friday, April 22, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War — Plenty of fantasy fun

The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for fantasy action violence and brief sensuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.22.16

This one is leagues better than its predecessor.

2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman was overblown, overwrought and overlong: a textbook example of what happens when a first-time director gets in way over his head. I can’t imagine why such a neophyte was put in charge of a $170 million movie, and he certainly wasn’t helped by the trio of talentless hacks who delivered such a muddled, dreary script.

As Nion (Nick Frost, left) and Gryff (Rob Brydon, right) look on nervously, Eric (Chris
Hemsworth) finds an unusual, jewel-encrusted spear tip: a certain indication that nasty
goblins can't be too far away.
You know things are bad, when someone as talented as Charlize Theron gives a wretched performance: all shrieks and screams, with no emotional resonance whatsoever. That is always the director’s fault.

Given that the film deservedly tanked, with a U.S. box office gross of only $155 million, some might wonder why a sequel even crossed anybody’s mind. Ah, but Hollywood isn’t driven by domestic results any more. This leaden turkey reaped a global total of almost $400 million: more than enough to encourage the suits at Universal’s Black Tower to greenlight a follow-up.

Which — who would have thought? — turns out to be a pleasant surprise.

(Actually, ample precedent exists. As just one example, 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion(less) Picture was a bomb, whereas 1982’s Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan was sensational.)

Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan’s new film has everything the first one lacked: characters we genuinely care about, and who interact well with each other; a satisfying balance between fantasy-laden peril and emotional angst; and — most of all — a welcome sense of humor. Nicolas-Troyan also understands that cast-of-thousands battle scenes are intrinsically boring, particularly when we don’t give a whit about any of the faceless warriors involved; his film concentrates on more intimate melees between the story’s core heroes and villains.

And here’s the irony: Nicolas-Troyan, best known as a behind-the-scenes special effects maestro, also is a first-time feature director ... and, quite clearly, far more talented than the previous film’s Rupert Sanders.

Nicolas-Troyan has much better help, as well: a vastly superior script from Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin. Both clearly understand fantasy’s first golden rule: Everything must make sense, and remain consistent, within the confines of its own established parameters. You can’t just make stuff up, from one scene to the next; that’s the fastest route to audience disinterest.

Spiliotopoulos and Mazin cherry-picked the few elements that worked well in the first film, and concocted a clever prequel/sequel. We therefore meet Theron’s evil Ravenna years before she invaded and conquered the kingdom originally ruled so benevolently by Snow White’s father. At this point, Ravenna still dotes on a slightly younger sibling, Freya (Emily Blunt), who tags along as Big Sis magically tricks her way into an earlier conquest.

But then Freya falls in love: something Ravenna can’t stand, and which she clandestinely destroys. Shattered and enraged beyond reason, Freya’s heightened emotions trigger her magical abilities, at which point she becomes a master manipulator of ice. (Young fans of Disney’s Frozen aren’t likely to appreciate this vicious reboot of Elsa, as both versions are drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.)

Freya charges off to build her own icy palace, and staffs it with children kidnapped from their slain serf parents: adolescents who are groomed to become huntsmen (and women), and ordered — under penalty of death — to eradicate all thoughts of love from their psyches. Freya’s two best pupils turn out to be Eric and Sara, who grow up to become Chris Hemsworth (reviving his role from the previous film) and Jessica Chastain. We get ample evidence of their respective skills in battle.

They also fall in love. Which cannot end well.

At which point, we flash-forward slightly after Snow White has defeated Ravenna. Alas, the leftover magic mirror is influencing Snow in a bad way, and so her beloved Prince William (Sam Claflin, returning briefly) orders it taken from the palace and moved to some mystical “sanctuary,” where its powers will be eliminated. But something goes awry, and so William finds Eric and asks him to take over the mission.

(Kristen Stewart’s Snow White is nowhere to be seen this time out. Which probably is a good thing.)

Against his will, Eric is assigned two dwarf assistants: Nion (Nick Frost), the only dwarf carryover from the first film’s eight; and his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon). They’re soon joined by dwarf lasses Mrs. Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach), along with one other reluctant companion ... the identity of whom we’ll leave as a surprise.

Our not-entirely-merry band quickly discovers that things did go horribly wrong with the plan to relocate the mirror, which has its own ability to influence good people into bad behavior. Subsequent escapades involve helpful fairies, nasty goblins, rival huntsmen and ice-owl spies ... because Freya, no longer content to control just her lands, seeks to take over Snow White’s luxurious realm.

At which point, Eric’s gotta be thinking, a good guy simply can’t catch a break.

Hemsworth gets a much better handle on his character this time, in great part because Nicolas-Troyan wisely allows the actor to display more of his roguish charm. I’m not as sure about the more pronounced accent that Hemsworth gives Eric, which seems an awkward Scottish/Irish blend that occasionally mangles his dialog into near-incomprehensibility.

On the other hand, re-booting Eric as more of an Indiana Jones-style hero who succeeds as much by luck, as actual skill, was a wise decision. It makes him a lot more fun.

Blunt is appropriately menacing as the frosty Freya, a carefully layered villainess we almost feel sorry for, because her actions remain motivated by her having been betrayed and shattered, so many years earlier. She’s nonetheless quite menacing, and Blunt’s heartless, cold-eyed slow takes are suitably scary.

Theron is a far better Ravenna this time out: no more of the screaming and uncontrolled fits of rage that made her character so ludicrous before. Nicolas-Troyan understands that truly powerful villains never need to raise their voices, and this time Theron displays the sort of sinister, calculating malevolence that we’ve grown to expect from (for example) Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister, in TV’s Game of Thrones.

Frost and Brydon are a hoot as the forever bickering Nion and Gryff: the former fully aware of Eric’s abilities, and therefore always defending his honor; the latter unwilling to believe that a “tall one” could be worth much of anything. Their gentle squabbling provides welcome comic relief, and the dynamic gets even better with the arrival of Mrs. Bromwyn and Doreena.

Roach’s Doreena, a guileless soul, immediately falls for Nion; their growing romantic bond is quite sweet. Smith, in contrast, makes the older and more cynical Mrs. Bromwyn resistant to Gryff’s clumsy overtures; their snarky mutual put-downs become quite funny.

As was the case in the first film, where the additional dwarves included Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone, all of these characters are played by full-size actors: a display of special-effects wizardry that never ceases to fascinate, when they stand half-size alongside Hemsworth.

Chastain, finally, is persuasively skilled and athletically graceful as the warrior Sara, adept with both knives and her bow. “I never miss,” she reminds us, more than once, and we believe it.

Liam Neeson bridges some of the action with solemn off-camera narration, his richly expressive voice employed for maximum impact.

Colleen Atwood earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her costumes in the first film; she returns here with a similarly colorful blend of icy regal finery (Freya), warrior garb (Eric and Sara) and earthy togs (the dwarves). The goblins are suitably vicious monsters, and I love the delicate flying fairies, also a carryover from the previous film.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael makes excellent use of Domic Watkins’ production design, whether dark enchanted forests, magical meadow sanctuaries, or Freya’s glacial castle, where everybody exhales frost with each breath.

This new Hunstman is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, and — given its predecessor — a very pleasant turnaround. At this point, I’d love to see Hemsworth and the others return for a third round.

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