'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 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray as as a two-disc combo pack with a flyer for a Digital HD Copy. At the moment, we are unable to verify if the correct size of the content, but the dual-layered UHD66 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a black, eco-cutout case with a glossy slipcover. Both the UHD and the BD contain the 114-minute theatrical version along with a 120-minute extended cut, adding 6 minutes of dialogue and character development that don't actually improve the movie in any way. At startup, the disc goes straight to an interactive menu screen with full-motion clips and music playing in the background.
An army of huntsman furiously charge 4K Ultra HD day-and-date as its Blu-ray counterpart, showcasing an excellent HEVC H.265 encode in HDR10 that delivers plenty of noteworthy improvements that make this a significant upgrade over the standard BD. The movie was shot with a combination of a nearly 4K Arri Alexa XT and the Alexa 65 cameras, which is a new system that captures images equivalent to 5-perf 65mm film and a max resolution of 6.5K. The elements, however, were later mastered in a 2K digital intermediate, though it's unknown if the studio returned to the original source for making this new version. Nevertheless, 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').
Like its BD counterpart, the freshly-minted transfer receives a noticeable uptick in definition and clarity, showing fine lines that seem more distinct and definite in every scene. We can better make out the intricate, ornate embroidery and design work that went into the two queens' fancy gowns, and individual bricks of the castles expose the slightest blemish and pockmark from a distance. The fabric and threading in the other costumes are a tad sharper and better defined while facial complexions show more lifelike textures in the faces of actors, making the tiniest wrinkle and negligible blemish plainly visible. Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron, however, look flawless no matter the scene or levels of anger. The veins and lines in the individual leaves of trees resolute and discretely visible. Viewers can practically count crack, indentation and imperfection along the icy walls making up the Ice Queen's castle. Even during fast-paced action sequences, individual pebbles, each grain of sand and the most minute debris remains distinct while the threading and weathered crinkles in the leather clothing of certain characters are crystal-clear.
Presented in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, the presentation also enjoys an excellently well-balanced high dynamic range, making for a brighter and tad more dazzling presentation than the Blu-ray. Spot-on contrast allows for outstanding visibility in the distance and many exceptional, looking-through-a-window moments of the various shooting locations across England. Brilliant, pitch-perfect whites keep the picture vivid and immaculate with distinct differences in the clouds while specular highlights come with a crisp, sparkling glow in the glacial walls of the Ice Queen's castle, and metal objects shine in the sun with incredibly realism. The best moments are with Ravenna's gold outfits radiating in the light with intense luminosity. Brightness levels are also superb, displaying inky rich, full-bodied blacks that provide the image with a three-dimensional feel and a lovely cinematic appeal. With exceptional gradational differences between the various shades, the smallest object in the background is plainly visible even poorly-lit sequences while still able to see the distinction from the shadows and the dark clothing.
As mentioned in the review of the Blu-ray, 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. However, it would appear the source may have been color graded so as to take advantage of the wider color gamut, and the results, for the most part, are first-rate. The 2160p video displays a sumptuous array of energetic, richly saturated primaries that make the visuals come to life. The glacial blueness of the ice castle's now show a faint greenish-teal hue that adds realism while the rest of the picture is layered with slightly more vivid greens in the foliage, and the blue sky has a more striking glow. Other secondary hues shower the rest of the presentation with warm, vibrant earth tones and spirited pastels, giving the female dwarves a lovely rosiness in their cheeks and making the Ravenna's golden garbs a more true-to-life splendor. The best, most beautiful moments are the wide shots of sunsets and sunrises, emboldening the screen with a luminous array of fiery oranges and deep golden scarlets mixed with radiant magentas and glowing purples, making this an excellent 4K presentation.
For this 4K version of the fantasy reimagining of a classic fairy tale, Universal Studios equips the medieval retelling with the same 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.
On the plus side, this Ultra HD Blu-ray arrives with an excellent 4K video presentation. Though it doesn't really compare to other UHD titles currently available, it nonetheless offers several noteworthy and appreciable moments that should please fans. The movie also arrives with the same top-notch DTS:X audio presentation, along with the same collection of supplements, making the overall package worth checking out for fans and early adopters enthusiastic about the new format.
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.