12A – 117mins – 2016
Tolkien meets Frozen in this gritty, teen-targeted, action-heavy Kristen Stewart-less swearytale spin-off from 2012’s Snow White & the Huntsman. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the visual effects supervisor on the first film, makes his directorial debut, promoted after Rupert Sanders’ well publicised extramarital scandal with K-Stew.
Initially planned as a prequel to avoid explaining Snow White’s absence, Winter’s War is actually both an origin story for Chris Thor Hemsworth’s axe-handy Eric and a sequel, with the action skipping seven years and enveloping the previous films’ events.
Welcomely narrated by Liam Neeson’s assuring tones, we are re-introduced to a pre-death sorceress Ravenna (the returning Charlize Theron) and her fairer sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), who is involved in an illicit liaison with Merlin’s Colin Morgan. When Freya discovers Morgan’s Duke has murdered their child, grief brings her long-suppressed magical powers to the fore, and the Ice Queen is born.
Setting up her own kingdom in the North, Freya begins recruiting children to form a hardened army of cold-hearted huntsmen. When her two best warriors, Eric and Sara (Jessica Chastain), fall in love, Freya furiously forces Eric to watch as Sara is slain behind a wall of ice, before Eric’s unconscious body is thrown into the water…
Seven years (and a box office hit) later and a still-grieving Eric is recruited by Snow White’s husband, King William (Sam Claflin, who all-but cameos) to locate the shiny menace that is the Magic Mirror, which was stolen while being transported to “Sanctuary”, after it made the bed-bound Queen ill (handy, that).
Plucky dwarf Nion (Nick Frost) returns, accompanied by his humorously mouthy kin, Gryff (Rob Brydon), to aid Eric in his quest, which sees the unlikely trio reunited with a not-dead Sara (shocker!), battle goblins, team up with she-dwarfs (Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach), survive countless ambushes and confront Freya in a climatic battle in her Ice Palace to ensure the sort-after MacGuffin doesn’t fall into the wrong hands all over again.
With a mission which sees our motley band of heroes cross kingdoms, we are treated to a plethora of sumptuous fantasy landscapes and creatures both fair and foul, granting Winter’s War an expansive, large scale feel. Similarly, the expanding cast are all worthy additions to this Grimm world, ranging from empowering (Chastain), to domineering (Blunt) and cheeky (Brydon), and yet, they all fail to distract from the Kristen Stewart-shaped elephant missing from the throne room…
This is a follow up motivated by money and sadly defined by the loss of its star, with Snow White frequently referenced but never seen (aside from one clip, shot from behind, which was clearly an extra), with the biggest offence coming when Freya asks the Magic Mirror that most fateful question. As a golden figure is summoned forth and gradually forms before our eyes, the camera purposefully avoids showing Ravenna’s resurrected face until the last possible moment, playing with the audience’s expectations of who the fairest of them all really is, before shattering the illusion into a thousand anti-climatic shards.