I actually hate to generalize about things like the major creative forces of a film, but this one has been true enough, often enough that I feel safe in it: visual effects supervisors do not make good film directors and studios should stop confusing the skill sets. I can think of two successful visual effects artist who made the transition to director – Douglas Trumbull and Joe Johnston – but most of the rest have produced movies like Spawn and Eragon.
First time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the supervisor for 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman has been booted up to the big chair for the pre-sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War and it works about as well as you’d expect.
It’s the kind of field promotion which, once upon a time, was given primarily to second unit directors and first assistant directors, individuals who had spent quite a bit of time on sets and learned how to keep their various parts moving towards a single goal. [And that does still happen, make no mistake]. The move towards bringing effects supervisors into the mix suggests just how intertwined their work has gotten in the process for getting images up on the screen. It also suggests just how confused the idea has become that directorial vision equates to pretty and competent pictures. It most certainly requires more than that and effects supervisors – so far – don’t seem like the people we can expect it from.
Some of it may be built into the rationales for these kind of hiring decision as former effects supervisors seem to invariably get brought on to oversee technically complicated films with weak scripts where strong visuals are tasked with supporting the film. A more experienced director, or one who came from a background of story and character work, may have noticed the glaring problems which come with Huntsman’s script and done their best to minimize them. More precisely the one glaring problem which keeps poking its head up and will not go away no matter what: the film’s mistaken belief that it needs to bring back recognizable elements from Snow White and exactly which of those elements are the right ones.
It sounds, on a paper, like a logical decision – The Huntsman is a sequel so naturally it needs to call back to its most popular elements because that’s what good sequels do. Actually, The Huntsman is both a prequel and a sequel, explaining the tragic back story of evil queen Ravenna’s sister Freya (Blunt) who became a conquest minded sorceress in her own right and began invading over countries in the frigid north. To do so she has taken to kidnapping children and raising them in her own image as her Huntsman, of which Eric (Hemsworth) was once one. Skipping forward seven years or so Freya’s armies are preparing to invade Snow White’s freshly won kingdom in search of Queen Ravenna’s (Theron) magic mirror with which she’ll be able to conquer the world. Her own use of the mirror has incapacitated Snow White (and allowed former lead Kristen Stewart to be safely written out), leaving it to Eric to face the demons of his past and destroy the artifact once and for all.
Which is all well and good, Hemsworth is a very charismatic leading man who is quite capable of carrying a film even if no one bother’s to go see the non-superhero ones. He was the best thing about the first film and remains the best thing about the sequel. Huntsman is at its best when it remembers that fact, letting him playfully flirt with the duo of female dwarves he meets on the road or question the sanity of his decision to jump from the top of a mountain to the roof an ice fortress below. It also opens up Eric’s backstory, providing more detail on the lost wife (Chastain) he was mourning in the first film and giving Hemsworth him his first real opportunity to play the romantic leading man.
Chastain on the other hand seems lost much of the time, a recent transplant trying to fit herself into the series as a remorseless warrior woman. Much of the skill she’s brought to other roles is unfortunately missing here as she spends most of her time flipping through the air and barking at people, though that could just be the side-effect of the off-the-wall Scottish accent she’s been saddled with. Except that she’s not the only actress – in a film filled with several excellent ones – with that problem. Blunt’s Freya, meant to be a tragic character who never got over the loss of her own child, is used primarily to move the plot along and behave as a typical big screen villain leaving whatever pathos she could have more of a theory than a fact. The script by Evan Spiliotopoulos and Craig Mazin (who’ve mostly written direct to video animated fairy tales and the two bad Hangover movies) treats its characters as tools to push story beats forward not living, breathing people which leaves any story elements relying on audience empathy to fall flat.
None of this is insurmountable. They say half of directing is casting and Nicolas-Troyan has put together a formidable one. Even with inherent script problems they’re good enough to keep things competent if not entertaining, except the other half of directing actually is having a vision and it doesn’t seem like the director’s is the one ruling the final film. Somewhere along the line the idea has settled that Eric himself is not a strong enough tie to the previous film and Troyan has either chosen or been saddled with various elements of Snow White which have no real place here.
The first are the dwarves, with the usually excellent Nick Frost returning from the previous film along with a half-brother (Brydon). The idea seems to be for them to provide comic relief, but no one has stopped to consider how that will actually work. Instead they simply appear out of nowhere and follow Eric around commenting on the action of the film like a minute Statler and Waldorf, but hardly ever engaging in it. They’re not funny and as a bonus all the screen time they eat up keeps Chastain or Blunt from developing their new characters in way that would actually make the story affecting and workable.
Even worse, and less needed, is the return of Theron’s Ravenna late in the third act to push Blunt aside and take over as the main villain again. Because she is off screen for almost the entirety of the film – here entire screen time amounts to roughly 10 minutes – and the story has labored mightily to build Eric and Sarah’s conflict with Freya instead, this bit of bait and switch is anticlimatic to say the least. Nor does the lack of development for Freya enable the conclusion to have the emotional resonance it is clearly going for.
Jettisoning these elements may not have been enough to make The Huntsman a good film, but it would have made it a better one. A choice like that however would have required someone in the director’s chair who did have a real vision for his film and Troyan’s is at the very least severely co-opted (if not non-existent).
The Huntsman: Winter’s War is textbook sequel failure. Given a decently but not spectacularly successful first film, the powers that be have decided they need another one but can’t be fussed with putting top of the line talent or real resources behind the camera. They’ll do just enough to try and eek out a second film and hope they get lucky. That lack of commitment and vision shows in every frame of what we get.
4 out of 10 stars
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Emily Blunt, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Alexandra Roach, Sheridan Smith, Sope Dirisu and Charlize Theron