Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War (2016) - Movie Review

In today’s more prominently continuation-based film economy, there is one thing that everyone can be given credit for: We’ve learnt proper continuity. Say what you will about the wavering quality standards between sequels/reboots/reimaginings and what have you, but filmmakers and in particular screenwriters know what they’re doing when it comes to making one story feel like an actual follow-up to another. We’re past the days of going from Batman Returns to Batman Forever, where the tonal shift was enough to melt your spine at a moment’s notice. Or, at least, I thought we were. And then came the trailer of today’s film, and we all collectively went pulled the head tilt that is synonymous with reading a large number of Star Wars fanfiction: Where the fuck does this fit into the canon, if at all? Is it a prequel? Sequel? Mid-quel? Attempt to create a TV series that didn't get picked up? It’s kind of astonishing that a trailer for a film can come out that raises so many questions that they actively had to make another one just to answer them as best they could. I’d make a statement about not judging films entirely by their trailers, given some of the *ahem* controversies going on at the moment concerning a release that is fast approaching, but quite frankly this is a pretty bad first impression to get. But credit where it’s due, the film itself straightens the timeline out; it just finds whole new ways to be shit.

The plot: After the death of Ravenna (Charlize Theron), it seems that her evil influence is still at large through her magic mirror. Eric (Chris Hemsworth), upon learning that Ravenna’s sister and his former queen Freya (Emily Blunt) is still alive and seeking the mirror herself, sets out to retrieve it before it falls back into evil hands. To make things trickier, it seems that Eric’s long-lost wife Sara (Jessica Chastain) isn’t as dead as previously thought.

Good God, Blunt is wasted on this nonsense. Freya may not be as fledging a leader as Snow White was in the first film, but that doesn’t make her that much better on her own. She’s supposed to be this extremely protective and matronly ruler, and yet much like Snow White, her biggest showing of leadership consists of a speech that features equally inane dialogue. “Love is a sin”, I mean are you serious with this bullshit? Theron is as hamtastic as ever, which makes it such a shame that she is barely in this. Hemsworth is still solid as the Huntsman, employing as much roguish charm as he can muster, and Chastain makes for a very good match-up for him. Of course, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit, their relationship isn’t the best developed out there. One thing I can definitely give this film credit for is that they seemed to have learnt from last time and pared down the bulky dwarf cast to a manageable four with actual characters to them… kind of. Nick Frost is doofy and enjoyable to see in anything he’s in, and this honestly still isn’t an exception to that, Rob Brydon is nicely abrasive, Sheridan Smith is feisty and quite a welcome addition and Alexandra Roach is somehow even more doofy and is easily the flattest of everyone here. Trust me, in a film like this, that is a depressing accomplishment.

This film is directed by the second unit director and head of visual effects from the first film, but even though he is most widely known as a VFX guy (he was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Snow White), do be aware that his work is not only fairly new but also not all that impressive on its own terms. I bring this up because this doesn’t even have the superficial ‘ooh, pretty’ feeling to it that is pretty much the bare minimum expected for something like this. Remember 2014’s Transcendence? Yeah, I’m not surprised that you don’t because barely anyone does. That said, even with how half-arsed its attempts at cerebral sci-fi ended up being, there’s no denying that it was definitely a visually striking film. If you’ve built your name on shit looking good on the surface, your CGI shouldn’t be this PS2-era quality. The creature designs have some decent ideas in their concepts, like the goblins with the golden armour that bleed tar, but Cedric Nicolas-Troyan is in no way capable of realising any of them. On the more practical side of things, the fight scenes are… okay, I guess. I mean, seeing Hemsworth kick ass with his hatchet is still fun and all and her sparring with Chastain is nice, but it honestly comes across as a lot of too little, too late. It’s almost like they were too afraid that they would end up using too much of a good thing, so they decided to downgrade it so that it doesn’t completely outshine everything else. Honestly, even if that does sound like a convoluted reason, it would make the most sense given this film’s supposed production styles.

Co-writer Craig Mazin has one of those "really?!" kind of filmographies for me. I will defend Superhero Movie till my dying day as one of the only somewhat decent spoof films we’ve gotten in the last several years, but he’s also the man behind The Hangover sequels as well as Free Birds. And yet, he isn’t the guy I suspect made the huge misstep here. No, that lands squarely on the other writer Evan Spiliotopoulos’s shoulders as far as I’m concerned. I say this because, outside of working on the admirable failure of 2014’s Hercules with The Rock, he is mainly known for his work on Disney sequels. And I don’t mean the ones that make it to cinemas either; I mean the DisneyToon Studios-produced wastes of time and mythos that are primarily used to babysit infants because they go for really cheap prices. Even though it can be argued that this has far better production values than something like Tarzan II, it has all the script trappings of a straight-to-DVD sequel. Far weaker stakes when it comes to plot, far narrower scope, not to mention how it sandwiches itself around the original film in a way that only goes to show further that these are people who should not be in charge of making a feature film.

For the record, this is both a prequel and a sequel to the original film and it accomplishes this in just about the laziest way possible. The prequel section actually isn’t that bad, as it contains not only some of the few genuinely solid visual elements but also some of the best character development as well. Yeah, Freya is still completely uninteresting but Eric and Sara’s meet-cute and romantic sub-plot honestly works because it’s developed in a fairly nice way. And then the sequel part kicks in, and I am convinced that this had completely different people working on it because any and all sense of effort is completely thrown out once we hit “Seven Years Later”. One of the biggest issues with a lot of DisneyToons sequels is that they come across like really amateurish fanfiction that someone decided to film, and this is no exception. Right off the bat, not only does Eric and Sara’s relationship take a massive backpedal so they can continue bickering for about half the running time, but Sara’s existence within the sequel story pretty much negates whatever impact she had on Eric’s character in the first film. And speaking of new characters making things more confusing within the plot, not a single mention of Ravenna’s brother in any of this.

Not only that, as well as long scenes of walking that somehow manage to make the LOTR films look dignified when it comes to dwarves, but Ravenna’s re-entrance into the plot is also slipshod and seems determined to ignore whatever came before it. She’s at once shown to be far more powerful this time around (possessing tar powers, because I’m guessing that that is the only texture that these special effects artists feel confident in making) and taken down remarkably easy at the same time. I mean, if they were going to bring her back at all, they could have at least made the relationship between her and Freya have some kind of immediacy with the plot. I’ve seen this get unfavourably compared to Frozen in terms of interpretations of the Snow Queen, but frankly that is giving this film far too much credit.

All in all, this is a big budget version of a home video Disney sequel; who in the hell asked for this? I mean, kudos to the one person who was because, let’s face it, actively getting what you want in Hollywood is a rough ask, but for the rest of us, all we have is probably one of the most blatant and laziest cash grabs in recent memory. The acting is poor, the special effects are sub-par at best and the writing actively makes me think that someone pulled a Fifty Shades Of Grey and did a find-replace on someone’s fanfiction because these are some piss-poor attempts at mythos continuation. I give credit in that it had some promising moments early on, but it gets thrown away in record time and results in what is shockingly an even worse effort than the first film.

1 comment:

  1. I wasn't a fan of Winter's War either. What a great cast in a terrible movie.

    "All in all, this is a big budget version of a home video Disney sequel" sounds about right.

    - Zach