As I heavily remarked in my last article (click here to read), the Costume Design for the monstrosity that was The Huntsman: Winter's War wasn't really as good as everyone was claiming it to be. And because I am sort of unrelenting in my grudges and hates, I am going to continue hammering down this idea, this time focussing on the true stars of this movie: the two Evil Sister Queens.
So, without further ado, let's get into the madness.
IV. FREYA, THE ICE QUEEN
That tonal dissonance that I pointed out in the huntsmen characters becomes a cacophony the moment we consider the two Queens in this movie: Ravenna (because how could they do this movie without bringing back the only successful character in the last movie?) and her sister, Freya, who basically becomes Elsa from Frozen.
Before starting, I feel like I need to clarify that my main quarrel about both their designs has nothing to do with if they are pretty or not, which most of them are. But prettiness is not what defines a good costume design. My main quarrel is that it looks like ripped off a Disney Production: all is sparkle and non-threatening colors and shapes, virtually rendering our villainous antagonists useless (of course, the script also takes great pains in doing that). I don't care that the dresses look good, they are wrong for this movie and these characters.
With that said, let's focus on "diet coke Elsa" (as YouTuber Jeremy Jahns defined her, the exactitude of which completely kills me) and her thousands of unnecessary pretty dresses.
As the movie stars, we are introduced to Freya as the sweet, non-magical sister of the evil Ravenna, and in its first 10 minutes, we are treated to 3 different gowns for her. None of which has nothing to di with the others: they don't share a color palette, or a structural characteristic or anything really. It goes from brown to pink/cream to green-blue. From a tight, restrictive gown, to a flowing robe to a Renaissance fair costume. Pick a style!
I'm not saying that you can't have a character dressed in different colors or even different styles. I'm saying you can't do it when you are still introducing the character to the bloody audience within a span of 10 minutes. It truly seems like a desperate attempt to cash in that sweet female dress-loving audience...
Then she becomes the Ice Queen and, at least, she gets a fixed palette then: grays, silvers and blues. Which are the obvious choices when you are dealing with someone that shoots ice off her fingers. And she also gets a ton of over the top, glittery dresses.
This gown is the one she wears for the supposedly "big reveal" of her character as the Ice Queen, and you really don't need a magnifying glass or anything to see just how reminiscent of Elsa's magic dress this is. Honestly, the lack of unique personality of her designs is one of the biggest problems for her character. I get that she shouldn't be as creepy as her sister (after all, her motivations are totally different): this character sees herself as a mother to her child army, a protective figure in a twisted way. It would have been amazing if that had seeped into the designs, reflecting her need to be a mother. But it doesn't. This dress screams "shiny Disney princess", not "really messed up person who wants to be a mother".
Sure, the detailing is amazing and the overcoat looks like tiny crystals, and it's gorgeous, and the crown looks amazing. Of course it is, this was done by one of the Best Costume Designers ever. But it has no personality and doesn't fit what the narrative (or the movie's attempt at it) is trying to do.
As you can see, the "shiny Disney princess" trend is quite widespread in her wardrobe. Most of her outfits (as seen in the picture above) integrate all sorts of shinning silver elements or elements that are simulating crystal. The lack of originality in her designs is absolutely disturbing. These type of dresses are the first thing that comes up when you look "ice queen" up.
And yes, they are beautiful. Again, that is not the issue. The issue is that the only information that they give me is that she controls ice, so the designs truly fail at backing up her character.
Let's rewind for a moment; Freya is a profoundly insecure woman who loses her marbles after the murder of her baby daughter and decides that she'll protect every child possible by raising them in a love-free environment. Does any of that reflect on any of the costumes? No. Her most important characteristic shouldn't be that she shoots ice out of her fingers. Emphasis should be placed on her need to play mother to everyone.
She should be this creepy/twisted mother figure for her huntsmen. She should invoke fear in them, but also a twisted sense of love. And that should be reflected in the costumes as well. But, of course, then we would be talking about a much better movie.
What really pisses me is that there is actually one design that comes very close to that. Unfortunately, it's on-screen for a very brief scene, never to appear again.
For me, this ensemble is everything it should and could have been. The long, fur coat is welcoming and yet strangely eerie. Her loose hair with no decorations likens her to a religious figure, a twisted Virgin Mary. Both these elements, though very simple in its conception, help create a twisted feel to the character whilst underlining her personality. I truly don't need costume elements constantly reminding me that she shoots ice out of her fingers, she already lives in a Palace that's half made of Ice.
However, this costume represents a brief lapse in the producers' obsession to make this movie as marketable as humanly possible and we are thrust back once more into the world of "Freya, Disney princess".
Her most "iconic" costume is the one she wears during the climax of the movie, which is the one shown in the picture above. This one enrages me particularly, because, it's not only super non-threatening, it also looks designed to be turned into a doll (yes, designers make certain choices when they know the character is going to be sold as a doll). Because of this, this is probably the costume with less personality of its own.
Let's go back to the flimsy narrative once more. This is worn at a moment where she has just summoned her sister back from the mirror and she's having a lot of doubts. She is a bit afraid of Ravenna and fears she might hurt her children and yet, she wants to appear strong in from of them, to protect them. And while I think that the "dressing up for success" aspect of the sequence is in the design, that's the only thing that's there. The design is deeply bland and generic, which sucks the effectiveness out of it.
Also, is it me, or do most of her dress' materials look cheap? I swear that this corset, on-screen, looked like it was made with paper foil. And I looked it up; it's supposedly textured leather, but it looks so much like paper foil.
But, at least, all the costumes that I've shown up until now are coherent in their "princess" trend. The same cannot be said for her "armor costume" (which is why I left it for the end).
Right after the Huntsman has rescued the mirror, Freya and her army show up and, through Sara's betrayal, take it from them. For this scene, it was decided that Freya would wear a metal armor completely out of the blue.
It's not the worst female armor design that I've seen (even though it still looks like it's done with paper foil) and the velvet cape is rather cool. Then why am I complaining? Well, for her character to appear on a full armor ensemble, it feels as left field as it would for the Huntsman to suddenly appear in a full gown.
Up until this point, she has never been shown wearing anything but full-length gowns nor has she been shown leading her armies. Her power comes from the control she has over people because she could freeze them in the blink of an eye, not because of her skill as a warrior. To me, the inclusion of this ensemble feels like the direct result of producers insisting that for a female character to be strong, she needs to wear armor at some point.
Movie, make up your mind, either she's a shiny princess or a warrior Queen, but unless it's really well integrated (which is not here) she shouldn't be both.
Last but not least, we should mention the owl-related theme that runs with this character. Apparently, this was already set in the script, but it still makes for truly nonsensical visuals.
After she discovers her magical powers and goes to create her own kingdom, she takes the owl as her sigil for some reason and also uses a magic ice owl to see through her and spy at whomever she wants. To do this she uses this owl-shaped mask, that despite looking really sweet (it was digitally printed) it's also a tad nonsensical. Why need a mask, did they though we wouldn't understand what she was doing otherwise?
Also, why an owl? The most common significance of the owl comes from Greek mythology: Athena's owl as the sign of higher wisdom. So... what are you trying to tell me movie? Honestly, even in the movie, it feels like a rather random choice. But I guess I'm starting to nitpick too much. This was a script choice, there was little the designer could do to fix it.
All in all, the designs for her character only focus on highlighting her powers and the fact that she calls herself a Queen and, by doing so, neglects the most complex and interesting aspects of her character. By constantly falling into visual cliches, she's turned into a pretty cartoon princess, stripping her of any sense of derangement or danger, and therefore cementing the viewer's perception that there is no real threat in the movie. And if there is no danger, there is no interest.
Besides, the tonal shift is especially noticeable with her designs. While the Huntsman exists in a world of dirt and grime, she is always pristine and untouched, cementing the cartoon feel around her.
V. RAVENNA, THE EVIL QUEEN
Despite what the promotionals for this movie might have led you to believe, Ravenna is hardly in the movie. She has about 28 minutes of screen time as a whole within this 2-hour long movie, which means that she's in about 23% of the movie. She would hardly be considered "supporting" if not because she takes over the role of movie villain the moment she pops back up on the screen.
And, even though I don't like it, I understand why she was brought back for this sequel/prequel; she was the best character in Snow White and the Huntsman, and the best-liked as well. And maybe, if they managed to recapture her magic for this one, she might have also been the best thing in the movie. Unfortunately, the bad screenplay, the bad directing and the bad concept turned her into a Saturday morning cartoon, with Theron overacting at every opportunity and her costumes looking like they belonged in a catwalk and not in this movie.
What made her designs for the first movie work was that they managed to weave in eery and disturbing imaginary with the more aesthetic elements, thus giving her character a real sense of danger and evilness. In Winter's War this is completely disregarded in favor of making her look "sexy". And, at a visual level, her character goes from being a terrifying super-powered woman to a slightly unhinged supermodel.
But let's start from the beginning. The movie opens with her doing something that we were already told in the first movie that she did: killing a king she just married (so hooray for being redundant). In the scene, she is shown wearing a rather unremarkable robe (this picture below is the best picture I could find of it). It's totally unmemorable except for the fact that it sets the course of her character in visual terms: it's all about highlighting her "sexiness".
Also, the mini-tiara is ridiculous and looks like something you would buy for your five-year-old niece in a Disney Store.
Then comes the funeral scene, and she's shown wearing the most awful costume they could come up with: an electric blue gown with an off-the-shoulder neckline with an Italian Renaissance-inspired hat and a veil. I'm pretty that sure this scene marked the moment I knew this was going to suck.
One of the capital sins of this movie designs is to repeatedly mistake extravagance with originality, which is what is going on right here. This gown, with its bright colors and weird complements, is the visual representation of "extravagance only for its own sake".
And what angers me the most is that nobody gave a second thought about it: wearing electric blue in a funeral where you are supposed to be the inconsolable widow? We know she is evil, but she' also supposed to be stealthy and cunning, so pretending to be sad, so that nobody rose a finger against her before being able to claim power would be a given, right?
Then there are a couple more costumes before she disappears from the story; both are passable, but still count as sin worthy for being too pretty and zero threatening.
At least the edgy crown from the first movie is back. Although, for some reason, they cast aside her iron one for a golden one even before she's sucked into the mirror. In my opinion, the iron one made her look way more dangerous and tougher than this one. But at least it's pointy.
And what gives with the hair shaped as molten gold? She hasn't been sucked by the mirror yet! There shouldn't be a golden theme with her before that happens! That's anticipating her story!
In the end, it feels like they are trying to give her an edge by creating the most fashion-forward looks they could come up with. And, unfortunately, that trend drags itself into all her other costumes when she reappears at the very end.
This is how she emerges from the mirror when summoned right before the climax. Look carefully at this and try to deny the fact that this looks exactly the same that any of Theron's perfume ads. I dare you.
The fact that your big bad villain looks like a supermodel in a perfume ad is quite problematic, for obvious reasons.
And yes, the first movie also used elements of high couture, but they were weaved in with elements of high fantasy in a very balanced way, which made it look scary and creepy. Here, it would seem, they forgot completely the fantasy element.
Sure, this "return costume" has some good ideas in it. For instance, as she later reveals, she is part of the mirror now, so it seems only logical to show her wearing a "molten gold" dress. Besides, the molten gold effect is really well done, especially considering that this dress is made of leather.
What doesn't work quite as well is the fact that the general cut of the dress creates only soft and curvy lines. There are no edges, no hard lines, not a single visual shape that would make her seem threatening.
The thing is, geometry in visual media is super important when it comes to quickly creating mental associations in the viewer's mind. Softer shapes are more often than not linked to good guys, whilst hard lines and edges are a sign of villainy. But, you don't need to take my word for it. Check out this awesome essay that explains it way better.
So yes, geometry in movies IS important. And for some reason, the only hard lines her supposedly "evil" character is given is the crown whilst the movie insists on dressing her in the softest and most feminine dresses ever.
It wouldn't be so noticeable if the overall tone of the movie established it as a more subtle or mature story. But this is clearly aimed at children and young adults. You need to have visual shorthand: evil things (including characters) are made of sharp edges and hard lines.
It's that what makes so absolutely bewildering the fact that so much effort and emphasis was put on making her look as sexy as possible and so little on making her look dangerous.
Also, the fact that she has three different dresses during the third act makes for a really weird choice. The movie specifies that she is not 100% human, that she's part of the mirror. Why has she to change her clothes then? It's as ridiculous as if the mirror, in the last movie, changed outfits throughout the movie.
For the final battle, they chose to bring back the feathered cloak from the last movie, but as if it was made with golden feathers. And I actually think that is a good idea. What's not so good is, once again, the supermodel dress she wears underneath.
Simply adding black to the gold doesn't make it feel threatening, especially when it's so noticeable that everything else is directed at highlighting her sexiness. From the plunging neckline to exposed back and the long gloves.
In the end, the "catwalk" feel, lack of edges and hard lines, the unnecessary costume changes and the preference for extravagance for its own sake is extremely detrimental to the end result. It makes it feel generic and pandering when it should be focussed on highlighting her character and her character changes.
VI. A FEW WEIRD NOTES
As a side note, there is also a couple of really weird visuals in regard to the costume design that completely brings me to stitches. The first of these is the "owl" hats of Freya's soldiers (because for some reason she has Huntsmen and regular soldiers).
As I mentioned earlier, Freya takes a white owl as her sigil. Because of this, apparently, someone thought it would be a nice addition to have the soldier's hats/helmets inspired by that. This results in a very comical look for the poor suckers, who still need to look fierce while wearing a hat-shaped as an owl's head and ears.
The other weir addition is very easy to miss. It's in the scene where Hemsworth's Huntsman is attacking a nobleman for hunting baby dears instead of full-grown ones, and, for some strange reason, the bodyguard for the nobleman is dressed like the huntsman from the 1937's animated version.
I truly can't unsee this, and it brings me to fits of uncontrolled laughter every time. I can't offer an explanation for any of this weird incorporations, but I really wanted to point them out.
MIRROR, MIRROR...NO MORE SEQUELS
The movie literally ends with a line that gets me trembling in fear every time. It's probably the scariest thing in the movie: "some fairy tales do come true, but none ever truly ends". The mere prospect of another sequel for this stinker gets me crying.
This movie is an epic fail from beginning to end and it bothers me to no end that the Costume Design gets a pass just because it's pretty.
A good Costume Design is not defined by how pretty it is (despite the common belief). Costumes serve an essential narrative function and, therefore, what defines if its good or not should be narrative criteria. Does it help further the story? the character? the world? the tone? No? Then it sucks. This is not a fashion show, it's a movie.
And this is exactly the case here. The Designs for this movie are unable to keep a consistent visual tone; constantly swinging from one side of the spectrum to the other. Instead, the only consistent thing in them is the extra effort put into making them look as pretty/sexy as possible, completely disregarding their characters and/or function in the story.
The constant disneyfying and the use and abuse of visual cliches create a final product with a bewildering lack of unique personality or originality. But, honestly, that's what happens when your end goal is to make the movie as marketable as humanly possible.
And what, deep down, bothers me the most is that, for a movie that claims not to be like any fairytale you've known before, it's just so obsessed with being quite the contrary. From the inclusion of "Freya, Disney princess" and "Sara, warrior princess" to "Ravenna, the supermodel", this movie feels like any fantasy movie before.
The first movie, to be honest, had better costumes that it deserved; even though not stellar, still much better than the movie they were in. This one, unfortunately, has exactly the costumes it deserves; flashy, campy and completely over-the-top with no control over the visual tone. And I blame it all on the Studio, so I end this article addressing myself to them.
Dear Hollywood. Making a fantasy story that works is no easy feat. Please stop treating it like a fast and easy way to make money. Thank you.
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