“The Story Before Snow White” (and if we’re being strictly accurate, also after it.)
Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron and Nick Frost
An uncredited narrator explains that before the story of Snow White that we all know (or, more accurately, the version from Snow White and the Huntsman) there was another story. Ravenna (Theron) was already murdering her way to power in other kingdoms, while her sister Freya (Blunt) was shagging Merlin (Colin Morgan not playing Merlin, but not noticeably given an actual name either) and denying her magical bitch queen heritage. Then Merlin set their daughter on fire and Freya turned into the Ice Queen, moved north and ordered all the children in the land brought to her to be trained as her Huntsmen, never knowing love and thus unable to be betrayed. Naturally, her top recruits Eric (Hemsworth) and Sara (Chastain) fall in love and try to escape after an impromptu marriage that the State of Nevada wouldn’t uphold but which just about maintains continuity with the first film is you really squint. Before they can escape they are separated by a wall of ice and Eric sees Sara killed before being coshed and thrown in a river.
Flash forward and Eric is living in pastoral isolation in the Kingdom of Snow White (Kirsten Stewart’s body double) and her husband William (Sam Claflin making rent and resolving that particular love triangle,) no longer a dour drunk and more… Chirpy McThor. His idyll is interrupted when Nion (Frost) and his half-brother Gryff (Rob Brydon) lead William to him to beg his help: The magic mirror having driven Snow White half-mad (I knew it!) it was being sent to Sanctuary, where it would be safe from anyone evil (although this was not visibly the case in the first movie,) only the convoy went missing.
They discover that the escort turned on themselves under the mirror’s influence, or were killed by goblins, or both. They run into a group of Huntsmen also searching for the mirror, but are rescued by the not-as-dead-as-advertised Sara, whom it emerges believes that Eric ran out on her, the ice wall being all illusiony.
The group teams up with Mrs Bromwyn (Sheridan Smith) and Doreena (Alexandra Roach), a pair of scrappy dwarf highwaywomen, who exchange foul-mouthed insults with Nion and Gryff before agreeing to a joint mission into the goblin forest where the mirror has been taken. They fight the goblins – night invulnerable, yet entirely flammable apelike creatures with leathery black skin covered in gold decorations – snag the mirror, then Freya shows up with her Huntsman army and riding an ice weasel.
Shock, horror! Sara is in league with Freya, or not, or something. Eric commandos into the Ice Fortress to kill Freya, but Ravenna has been sort of resurrected by the mirror. Eric and Sara appeal to their fellow Huntsmen and Ravenna responds to the insurrection by going full Cthulhu, shooting blood tentacles at people until Freya – mortally skewered herself – freezes the mirror to save her ‘children’ and Eric shatters it.
What’s wrong with it?
The prologue narration. If I want to watch someone tell me a story, I’ll bust out my Storyteller DVDs.
Ravenna and Freya. Now, these days it’s par for the course to name one daughter after an Etruscan city-state and the other after the Norse goddess of sex and violence, but how fucking cosmopolitan were their parents (who, as I recall, were basically minor nobility at most before she got her fairest blood upgrade and started shag-murdering her way to power.)
Also, what happened to creepy brother Finn? (Irish hero; a perfect third name for our family of Hiberno-Norse-Italians!)
The prologue for this movie can fuck off from the moment Colin ‘Merlin’ Morgan sets his daughter on fire, as part of a plot to turn Freya magical. The fact that it works means that their daughter was shoved into the refrigerator in order to turn her mother into a refrigerator. I do not approve of this irony.
“I took you from your homes before or around puberty, dressed you in leather and made you keep company with each other throughout dozens of highly-emotional, adrenaline fueled adventures and you repay me by getting all sexy-sexy at each other! Where did I go wrong?”
Jessica Chastain’s Scots accent is just… I can barely quantify how much worse it is than Chris Hemsworth’s Scots accent.
A more cynical man might suggest that the black-skinned, apelike, gold obsessed, bling-plated goblins (sadly I can’t find a picture) have racist overtones, or at least were the product of unresolved white dread, but maybe they’re just a weird hybrid of mythological goblins and refugees from The Planet of the Apes. And flammable.
The film contains four dwarves, of which exactly none contribute materially to anything, but this is loosely a Snow White story, so dwarves we got, albeit fake dwarves, who literally vanish for the entire denouement. Also, once more the dwarves clearly occupy an entirely different space to everyone else, mild-swearing and bickering like they’re in the in-flight edit of a Guy Richie movie.
It is said that Snow White’s army is unbeatable. This is a hell of a development from the end of the last film when she had about fifty heavy cavalry and most of them were dead.
At one point the creepy animal-possessing fairies from the first film show up with elk for Eric and the dwarves to ride, but we never see that; we cut straight to an elk-free shot of them looking at the fortress and nary a sight of Hemsworth racing across a fjord like a valiant, pungent reindeer king (or even chowing down on venison.)
Did I mention that Colin Morgan (non-graphically at least) sets fire to his own daughter? Fuck you Merlin. Fuck you Ravenna for setting that up and fuck you prologue for thinking ‘what’s a cool way to turn a character evil? I know; baby incineration.’ In a real fairy tale, she would at least be turned into a squirrel or something. In fact, you know what? That’s my head canon on this thing. She’s totally a squirrel.
The whole tentacle blood spear thing is a left-field development for a witch-queen who was kind of all about the glass. It also seems to have a limited effect, as despite putting down all but Sara and Eric, only Freya is conspicuously dead in the final reckoning.
What’s right with it?
Although the narration is basically just a fairly bland fairy story, Liam Cunningham (or a total soundalike, he’s uncredited,) brings a gravel-voiced dignity and genuine Celtic accent to the proceedings.
The absence of Kristen Stewart at least means that we are spared another rousing speech.
The special effects are cheaper this time around, but Freya’s silver-and-ice quasi-Viking aesthetic, especially her spy owls and stave-built fortress, are pretty sweet. Ravenna looks kinda over-done by comparison. And then she rocks up on… whatever that’s supposed to be, which is dramatic if nothing else.
Emily Blunt shines, especially when she’s suddenly reduced to the stumbling beta queen by her sister’s reappearance.
How bad is it really?
This is a tough call, since the whole ‘not being Snow White and the Huntsman‘ business obviously makes it look good by comparison. Basically it’s kind of a fun ride – which is more than you can say for the painfully sombre original – but it’s nothing all that special and ultimately feels its length a little too much.
The Ice Queen look is gorgeous, however, and the cast impressive, even when the script isn’t.
Best bit (if such there is)?
“You do have a plan?”
“Is it a good plan?”
“No; but it’s simple.”
What’s up with…?
- The swearing dwarves? They’re even more pointless than in the last film.
- Ravenna’s shifting backstory and the absence of creepy Finn?
- Incendiary bling goblins? I mean it, you know; they turn out to be basically made of tar and literally burst into flame at the drop of a hat.
- Actually… dodgy black face, bouncing movement, on fire… The goblins are the Spirit of Jazz.
- Sara’s antler-knife-staff thing? She has antler handled knives (okay) with the antler tines still attached (oo-kay) which join up into a blade-y fighting staff (uh-huh.) All the other Huntsmen seem to have more outlandish weapon choices like… swords or axes. Or sticks. For an army of unbridled savagery, they seem well into their less-lethal bludgeoning solutions.
Production values – Although made on a much lower budget than the original, Winter’s War is still visually impressive, perhaps as a result of ditching the psychedelic eye shrooms (although grassy tortoise makes a reappearance.) The action scenes are mostly pretty good, but often a little confusing with the camera blur, fast cutting and uniform appearance of the Huntsmen’s, erm, uniforms. 8
Dialogue and performances – The absence of Kristen Stewart’s speech alone elevates this film to new levels. The script isn’t great, but it’s got a sense of fun and some witty banter, and no complete clunkers like ‘iron will melt, but it will writhe inside itself.’ The weirdest thing is that there are basically two scripts for two films, one a fairy tale adventure and the other a post-watershed relationship sitcom about the dwarves. 7
Plot and execution – Taken on its own, the film’s plot is a little convoluted, but basically sound. Taken as a seprequel it’s kind of weird, just by being a… seprequel? presequel? surroundquel? And because it doesn’t quite fit with what we had of the backstory in the original. 10
Randomness – Dwarves? Inflammable goblin apes? Tentacle rage? 12
Waste of potential – As the sequel to one of the goofiest ‘dark fantasy’ tales of recent times, this had no right to be even as fun as it was. 7