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The Huntsman: Winter's War. Untangling the mess. Part I

When the announcement came up that there would be a sequel for 2012's Snow White and the Huntsman, you might have had doubts about it, but still told yourself (as a fan of the fantasy genre) that maybe this was going to be the sequel that we didn't know we wanted but still ended up being awesome. But you knew the truth, deep down you knew. This was the sequel that we didn't need and neither did we want; a quick cash grab that came too late to ride the coattails of its predecessor and was too weak to work on its own. And that became crystal clear the moment the first trailer hit the internet.


It's really bewildering to think that they chose to do a sequel for a movie that, first of all, underperformed theatrically, and, also, was liked by almost no one. Both of these facts made for a very obvious end to the theatrical run of Winter's War; it tanked at the box office domestically, and was critically panned by everyone.


But, being the huge fantasy fan that I am, I still braved the courage to watch it a few days back, in hopes that it wouldn't be as bad (maybe even good) even though the trailer seemed to suggest quite the contrary. And that's how I came to waste two very long hours of my life and complete hope in my optimism.

Whilst the first movie's main sin was to be deeply dull and unoriginal as hell, its sequel chooses to also add "annoying", "boring" and "contrived" to the sin list. And it truly kills me, because the movie had potential to be mighty entertaining, but it wasted it completely by making it be like every adventure-fantasy ever made, only worse.

The tone of the movie is completely disjointed and in the end it seems like three movies mushed into one single movie. The story takes enormous leaps of logic and is overtly contrived in order to bring the characters and plot where it needs them. It has awfully stilted performances despite having a great cast (Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain are certainly in the top 5 of great actresses working today, and Theron and Hemsworth are really great presences to have on screen). And all of that derives from the fact that it is poorly directed; the studio chose Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who had been the VFX supervisor for the first Snow White movie, and it really shows he is no director. The VFX might look great, but the direction doesn't. He is unable to control tone or character or even look, constantly swinging from overtly grim and dark, to bright and clean without no reason.

In the end, the main problem, for me, is that the movie has no idea what it wants to be. On the one hand, it borrows heavily from The Lord of the Rings (the mirror functioning like the One Ring, and the Huntsman suddenly being this stand in for Aragorn) whilst it also tries desperately to be Frozen. The problem is that these two stories crash one against the other and are almost impossible to mix; the darkness and grim tone of Tolkien's work is almost incompatible with the more kid-friendly atmosphere of Frozen.

But the true reason that we are talking about this mess of a movie here, today, is not that it's a bad movie. It's because it's a bad movie with a bad Costume Design that everybody inexplicably considers good Costume Design. No matter what review was I reading, everyone was pointing out the Costume Design as the only redeeming quality, and it's not. And I'll proceed to explain myself.

DESIGNER VS. STUDIO

First of all, I need to clarify something. Despite the common misconception, the Costume Designer is not the one that has the final say in regards to what design will end up on the screen, particularly when we are talking about big Studio Blockbusters (or committee movies, as I call them). In this type of movie, it's either the director or the producer that ends up choosing which route will be the Costume Designer taking. For instance, in most cases, it's either the director or the producer,  who'll push for disregarding the period or having the female characters dress more "badass" and "sexy". Those types of designs are almost always imposed on the Costume Designer, who'll have to find ways to make that work.

So, whenever I blame the Costume Designer for not being historically accurate enough or having the female character showing too much skin, I'm just abbreviating.

This needed to be clarified, in this particular case, because the "producer choices" are really noticeable in this movie. Especially when you take it into account that it was designed by the always marvelous Colleen Atwood (11 times Academy Awards nominee and 3 times winner).

She's the mind behind the designs of Edward Scissorhands (1990), Little Women (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999, read here), Chicago (2002), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), and many more. She also designed the costumes for Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). If you want to read my thoughts on those costumes, read here.

What I mean to say with all this is that she's a household name of Costume Design, and I'm 100% sure that the result would have been a thousand times better without the production directives that are so palpable throughout the movie. It's almost like you could see their greasy paws all over the designs.

UNTANGLING THE MESS

First and foremost, my problems with this Costume Design is not that the costumes aren't gorgeous (particularly the ones for the Queens), which they are, or that they are badly done at a technical level, which they aren't. The main problem of the Costume Design in the movie, for me, is the obvious tonal shifts it constantly takes.

Tone is a very complicated thing. Every single aspect of a movie helps build it. And, though often ignored, Costume Design plays a big part in constructing tone. Because, how do you construct a cohesive tone if, visually, every single character seems to be dressed for a different movie? Honestly, place the Huntsman next to the Ice Queen and tell me they belong in the same movie. I dare you.

And what bothers me the most is that this tonal shifts are created by their incessant attempt to bring asses into the theater: "dress the Ice Queen like Elsa, that will bring families to see the movie", but also "dress the love interest all in leather and showing as much skin as possible, that will bring grown-up guys to see this", and also "dress Charlize Theron as if she was about go to the Paris Fashion Week, that will bring the lonely middle-aged women into the theater".... You get my drift.

With that out of the way, let's break down the characters and their designs.

I. ERIC, THE HUNTSMAN

Because Kirsten Steward refused to return as Snow White, the movie found its new protagonist in the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) from the first movie, who apparently is named Eric all of a sudden. Also, a side note, they completely changed the personality of the character. I'm not complaining, now, at least, he is charming. But it makes for a jarring change if you watch this movie right after its predecessor.


As for the designs; they kept his very similar to the ones he had in Snow White; they were simply upgraded. It was considered that now that he has Snow White's support, he would be able to afford better clothes, and so the few changes done were done to improve the quality of his still very basic costume: now it's made of a nicer leather and the finishing details are also more neat. But the overall feel is the same: gritty and dirty as befits the character.


They even gave him a nicer coat as well!


By now, you'll have noticed the other major change in his design: he's gone from browns to blacks. This is an odd choice considering that they took the character's personality in a lighter route, changing him from a moody and depressed man to a very charming and optimistic one. 

It's not a change that actively bothers me, but it's a weird choice to say the least and a clear sign of the confusion the movie has about what it wants to be: it wants to be a dark epic and therefore darkens the palette of the protagonist whilst at the same time, stripping him of every personality trait that made him dark or edgy.

In the end, his costume is purely serviceable. It won't be memorable, but it also won't actively want to make you gouge your eyes out. It's the costume that tells you: "this is your fantasy hero, and he's a tough one". Nothing unique, but not actively wrong either.

II. FREYA'S HUNTSMEN

Turning Hemsworth's Huntsman into the protagonist wasn't as simple as they made us believe. Let's not forget that the Snow White movie didn't even bother to give him a name. His previous role was purely supporting to Steward's lead, so in order to turn him into our protagonist, the movie needed to create a story and background for him. Surely they could have tried not to rip said background straight from Conan (the 1982 version, honestly, it's exactly the same: kid's village gets massacred by the villain's army and he's taken to train as a slave warrior), but that was asking too much effort out of them.

Here's the overly complicated background they opted for: despite what we though in the previous movie, he wasn't referred to as "huntsman" because that was his job, but because he belonged to the feared army of "huntsmen" of the Ice Queen, created by capturing children and raising them as soldiers. Don't question it, just roll with it. otherwise, you'll end with a huge headache.


Despite being a rather crazy premise, it certainly gives room for creating design. What did they do instead? Dress them all in an eerily similar style as the one Eric has had for these two movies: leather trousers and leather vest, with leather arm protections and a rough spun shirt. Wow, ground breaking.


But I'm not complaining just because of the obvious laziness of the concept, no. I'm not that petty. I'm complaining because this poses a bigger problem, actually. If that is the "uniform" of the huntsmen, why would Eric wear it even after seven years of his life not being part of the "huntsmen"?


The fact that he wears the exact same outfit would be passable if it was immediate; he runs away and comes back. But between the picture on the left (whilst being in Freya's army) and the one in the right (being Queen Snow White's man) 7 entire years happen (and I know because the movie tells you it's been seven years). And he is wearing exactly the same! It's jarring, lazy and makes no sense.

My best bet is that they wanted to keep it simple, avoiding the possibility that people got confused. But was it so difficult to create a different uniform for the Huntsmen to differentiate his time with them and his time as Snow White's man? The answer is no, it wasn't.

Unfortunately, the worst is still to come.

III. SARA, THE "BADASS"

During his time as a Huntsmen, Eric fell madly in love with a fellow Huntswoman named Sara, whom he married and decided to run away with. This brought on them the wrath of Freya, whom apparently has some nonsensical rule about not loving, and separated them, making Eric believe she had died right after throwing him to a river and leaving him to die. And, of course, in a twist that nobody saw coming, Sara was actually alive, forcing us to stand for the rest of the movie the neatly tied bundle of cliches that is her character.


Her costume consists of skin-tight black leather pants with knee-high black boots and a tight black leather doublet. The whole look is finished with a metal belt and a couple of leather arm protections.


It truly baffles me the choice of having her go sleeveless. I mean, where they that desperate to show some skin to attract that sweet male demographic? Also, skin-tight leather? That might look sexy, but it's not the most comfortable thing to wear and move around a lot. I don't want to even imagine the friction burns.

At least someone (and my money is on Atwood) though about putting a chemise underneath that doublet, even though it would be way more logical not to cut the sleeves out and have the chemise poking underneath the doublet and covering her arms. But I truly doubt she is wearing much under those trousers... ouch.


I know I'm really tiresome about the sleeves thing. But it makes no sense when you think about it more than 5 seconds at a time. She is part of the Ice Queen's army. She lives and fights in the Ice Realm. It's clearly acknowledged that it's cold up there; when they meet up with the army, and she is wearing only the "sexy" chemise, they give her a fur coat! And I refuse to consider that it's only because she's in the chemise. The sleeveless leather doublet on top would hardly help at all against the cold.


Also, for the first 20 minutes of the movie she does wear a long sleeved shirt beneath! Why did they change that? She looks so much better with that addition.


This character, and her design are a perfect example of producers meddling with the job of the designer. If you take a look at Atwood's original sketches (here below), you'll see a design that is actually awesome. And the few moments in the movie when she looks the best are the moments when she's looks closest to that original design.


As you can see, her original design was actually created with the cold factor in mind; including sleeves and a fur protection around the neck and shoulders. The thing is, something tells me they took her sleeves off  for the second half of the movie because during her time "dead" she had become a "badass". And, for many a producer, there is no other way to show a female character is a "badass" except by taking her sleeves off.

But, no matter how much I bitch about the sleeves-thing, at the end of the day, what truly bothers me the most about her design is that her costume is nothing but a bundle of fantasy female cliches all tied together with zero imagination.


She looks like every badass female warrior has before. And that's why whilst Hemsworth costume (even though not very original) feels real, her costume doesn't. It's pulled out of every video game ever made. That's what I mean when I complain about the tonal dissonance in the costumes.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Originally this was going to be only one article, but it was starting to become such a long article, that I decided to split it in two. The second part will continue with the designs for Freya and Ravenna, the evil sister Queens. But, right now, ending this first part with Sara is perfect, because we have been able to introduce our main quarrel with the movie design (tonal dissonance) but has also allowed us to introduce our second main quarrel with it: the re-use of overused visual cliches.

Allow me to explain myself; this movie doesn't only relies on narrative (and worn-out) cliches, it also relies on visual cliches. What are visual cliches? Well, images that we've seen so many times that we associate with certain roles and, of course, plenty of laziness. The result is a boring movie to watch. This is "diet-coke" fantasy. And it irks me, because it's lazy storytelling and lazy visuals like this that make people say that "fantasy is silly and just for kids".

Both these problems plague the designs for Freya and her sister even more than they do the designs of the Huntsmen (and women), so brace yourself for the ride!

Comments

  1. The original film underperformed regarding the original studio hopes but just before it was supposed to come out there was really low predictions for it. So when the film outperformed them the studio could play the film as a hit. And probbaly greenlit the sequel for investors. If the film was actually good, had come out sooner and had lower budget maybe it could have worked but it looked like a poor choice from the start.

    And nice you have your own opinions and not just repeating what other people say or be impressed by the famous designer.

    ReplyDelete

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