'The Huntsman: Winter's War' stars Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road, Monster) as the evil Queen Ravenna, who betrays her good sister Freya (Emily Blunt: Sicario, Edge of Tomorrow) with an unforgivable act, freezing Freya's heart to love and unleashing in her an icy power she never knew she possessed. Retreating to a kingdom far to the north, Freya raises an army of Huntsmen as her protectors, with the only rule that no two of them should ever fall in love. As a war for domination escalates between the two queens, the hero standing between good and evil is Freya's most elite Huntsman, Eric (Chris Hemsworth: Thor, Star Trek Into Darkness). Alongside fellow warrior Sara (Jessica Chastain: The Martian, The Help) — the only woman who has ever captured his heart — Eric must help Freya vanquish her sister or Ravenna's wickedness will rule for eternity.
If not for it's association to 2012's dark fantasy retelling of the Snow White fairy tale, I would have thought 'The Huntsman: Winter's War' is some live-action version of Disney's 'Frozen.' Similar to that much superior animated film, two sisters without parents are at odds with one another. Their sibling squabbling is due to the younger of the two being convinced of true love while the older sees the sentiment as a distracting weakness. Oh, and they both are born with magical abilities — the evil stepmother Queen Ravenna (an excellent Charlize Theron) is an enchantress of the dark arts, but has a ruling passion for gold, while Freya (a good but not convincing Emily Blunt) discovers a talent for freezing things. When she runs away to the north and appoints herself the Ice Queen of an isolated, arctic kingdom with an ice castle, I half expected Blunt to break out into her own rendition of "Let It Go." Given her singing talents seen in 'Into the Woods' and the events leading up to this point, I imagine she'd knock it out of the park. However, the fact the entire sequence feels familiar is precisely the problem with this production.
Only twenty minutes into the movie and the whole thing sadly feels like a regurgitation of almost every epic film featuring a similar plot about the woes of true love. The script is by Craig Mazin, whose only work worth mentioning is the average 'Identity Thief,' and Evan Spiliotopoulos, whose background is in children's animation along with Brett Ratner's 'Hercules' and next year's live-action adaptation of 'Beauty of the Beast.' Not that their history should serve as the only determining factor of quality, but there is something to be said about their work showing little originality, which is disappointingly evidenced here. The plot is essentially a potpourri of grand, sweeping romances set against a fantastical, vaguely historical backdrop while at the same time, aspiring to be both a prequel and sequel, disgorging massive chunks of exposition for the entire first act so that the rest of the story makes sense as a direct follow-up. Apparently, just explaining that Ravenna had an equally evil, megalomaniac sister desiring the source of their magical powers is too simple. No, wait! That's too close to 'The Wizard of Oz.' Can't have that!
And yet, the filmmaker's blatantly borrow from other sources with no qualms. Long before Snow White was born — or least that's how I understood it — Freya creates a kingdom to match her icy heart and amasses an army of heartless huntsmen from kidnapped children, but years after her sister's defeat and death, she wants the Magic Mirror for herself and plans to invade the south. Aside from sounding like the drooling ambition of some 'Game of Thrones' fanfiction, the production sees Chris Hemsworth return as Eric in a forbidden, passionate love affair with Jessica Chastain's Sara, a fellow huntsman? Or is it, huntsperson? In either case, that subplot quickly unravels into a poor retelling of Mel Gibson's 'Braveheart' with Freya supplying her own version of "Prima Nocta" — as in, if she can't have any, no one else will — while Hemsworth and Chastain spout melodrama in laughably terrible Scottish accents. I'll admit, however, one aspect worth mentioning is the children convincingly playing younger versions of the two stars, but that's to the credit of casting directors. And sadly, the same can't be said of the script.
Things only continue to devolve into utter dullness in 'The Huntsmen: Winter's War' when the two lovers later reunite and combine their talents for the same quest — which, by the way, is neither a surprise nor a spoiler thanks to previews. Their lame hero's journey is practically ripped from the pages of Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' series, going so far as to propound the golden mirror has the power to make others succumb to its dark spell and lust for power. Joining them are a pair of bearded dwarves played by Nick Frost and Rob Brydon, providing comedic relief and observing the less fair features of their female counterparts. The plot grows eye-rollingly worse when those said maidens conveniently appear, not only expanding the fellowship but also looking more like hobbits and assisting in a battle against goblins. Eventually, the story reaches its predictable climax in exactly the expected fashion, a couple twists and turns with Theron leading the charge but neither earned twists or satisfying turns. The blame could go to first-time director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, but he's demonstrates some skill and talent behind the camera. I'm convinced the plot's aspirations for more magical fantasy were this production's eventual downfall.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'The Huntsmen: Winter's War' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with an UltraViolet Digital Copy code. Housed inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase with a glossy, lightly embossed slipcover, the Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably opposite a DVD-9 copy of the film. The Blu-ray includes the 114-minute theatrical version along with an unrated extended cut that clocks in at 120 minutes, adding 6 minutes of dialogue and character development that don't actually improve the movie in any way. At startup, viewers can skip various trailers before being greeted by the standard menu screen with the usual options, full-motion clips and music.
An army of huntsman furiously charge towards home theaters with a stunning, reference-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The movie was shot with a combination of Arri Alexa XT and the Alexa 65 cameras, which is a new system that captures images equivalent to 5-perf 65mm film. The result is a marvelous and highly revealing picture that looks nothing like the result of a digital motion camera, which speaks volumes to the quality of the camera system as well as to the talent of Phedon Papamichael ('3:10 to Yuma (2007),' 'Walk the Line,' 'The Descendants').
The freshly-minted transfer is a clear winner in terms of definition and clarity, showing distinct, resolute fine lines in every scene, from the intricate design in the two queens' fancy gowns to the individual bricks of the castles. The fabric and threading in the other costumes are sharp and well-defined while facial complexions show lifelike textures, making the tiniest wrinkle and negligible blemish in the faces of actors plainly visible. Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron, however, look flawless no matter the scene or levels of anger. The fine lines in hair, the leaves, along the bark of trees and every blade of grass are resolute and discretely visible. The icy walls making up the Ice Queen's castle reveal the slightest crack, indentation and imperfection. Even during fast-paced action sequences, the debris remains distinct and crystal-clear.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, Papamichael's photography mostly favors a cooler, polished palette for complementing the plot's bleak, frigid theme and gives the Queen's environment an icy harshness. The walls of her castle come with a glacial blueness that adds realism while the rest of the picture displays accurate, richly-saturated primaries, making the green of forests pop. Other secondary hues shower the video with warm, vibrant earth tones and spirited pastels, like the rosiness of the cheeks in the female dwarves or when the group rest for the afternoon with fairies flying around like pests. Flesh tones appear natural and appropriate to the climate while the gold in Ravenna's mirror garments glisten and glow with the light. The video also enjoys a well-balanced contrast and brightness, delivering a comfortably bright presentation with superb visibility in the far distance and crisp, sparkling whites in those glacial walls of the Ice Queen's castle. Black levels are rich and full-bodied without ruining shadow details in the darkest portions of the frame but providing the image with dimensionality and a cinematic appeal.
In keeping with its fantasy reimagining of a classic fairy tale, Universal Studios equips the medieval retelling with an excellent and overall satisfying DTS:X soundtrack, which defaults to the standard 7.1 English DTS-HD Master Audio for those not yet equipped for the new codec.
The sound design is intent on generating an enveloping experience with terrific, subtle atmospherics that beautifully engross the listener into this fanciful fairy world. Rear activity is layered with the rich, discrete sounds of wildlife and nature while directionality often appears seamless. However, much of this activity is located in the surrounds and back channels while ceiling speakers seem noticeably silent. Occasionally, the overheads are employed with bits of random noise that create a generally pleasing soundfield. Action sequences do somewhat better with effects and the sounds of debris fluidly panning above and landing all around. On the other hand, they are not all that convincing and don't really happen often enough to fully immerse the viewer, which is rather disappointing for the new object-based sound format.
The lossless audio shines best in the front soundstage, providing the imaging with a welcoming and warm presence from beginning to end. The musical score and the overall design makes better use of the codec by placing various sounds and noises in the front height channels, creating a very welcoming half-dome effect that at times pleasantly overwhelms viewers with the amount of off-screen activity. Vocals are well-prioritized and pitch-perfect, even amidst the story's loudest moments. While the lower frequencies are accurate and powerfully responsive when called upon, dynamic range is extensive with admirable room penetration, exhibiting clear, precise distinctions between the mid and high ends during the many sequences of combat. Although it doesn't take full advantage of the new format, the high-rez track is nonetheless enjoyable and predominantly satisfying for home theater enthusiasts.
Sorely lacking in originality, 'The Huntsman: Winter's War' is a boring and predictable regurgitation of almost every epic film featuring a similar plot about the woes of true love. As the lame hero's journey grows eye-rollingly worse, the story reaches its predictable climax in exactly the expected fashion, aspiring for more magical fantasy than it can chew and being this icy-hot production's downfall. The Blu-ray arrives with a fantastic, demo-worthy picture quality and an excellent object-based audio presentation. Although supplements are on the light side, they are still decently entertaining, making the overall package recommended for fans of the film and a rental at best for the curious.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.