It’s time for the Oscars, although it’s felt like they’ve come and passed with how long we’ve been experiencing the “La La Land” backlash. Since I’m filled with opinions, especially about the movies of 2016, it’s time for some prediction.
Spoilers ahead for “Moana,” “Sing,” “Zootopia,” “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Big Hero 6,” and “Frozen,” although I assume everyone has seen “Frozen” by now.
“Moana,” the latest animated Disney film, has many of the conventions of beloved Disney movies. It features a princess, toe-tappingly good songs, a comedic sidekick and a weird animal. What “Moana” misses is a villain, although there is an argument to be made that Te Ka, a lava demon, is the villain of the film.
“Moana,” unlike many other post-“Tangled” Disney films, manages to work without the presence of a villain. With nearly every other Disney film struggles with lacking villains or red herrings, “Moana” manages to succeed because it’s structured as an adventure film, with some buddy-comedy aspects.
The disappearance of villains in animated films seems to be a bit of a new trend, one that doesn’t always seem to work. This seems to have been something stolen from Pixar since a lot of animation studios seem intent on stealing from what is arguably the most acclaimed animation studio out there. What seems to be the most beloved Pixar films–“Finding Nemo,” “Cars,” “Wall-E,” “Brave,” “Inside Out,” “Ratatouille”–tend to have no villain. Granted, plenty of other great Pixar movies, ones that I personally prefer, have villains in them, notably “Toy Story 3,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Up.” (For the record, “Ratatouille” is my favorite Pixar film, but Skinner is more of an antagonist and Anton Ego is Addison DeWitt-lite.)
Pixar, however, tends to make movies children and adults can enjoy, ones that even seem to be a little more cerebral. Most children’s entertainment seems to try to pander to kids and dumb things down for them, ignoring how children sometimes have a heightened sense of the world for how it is. Pixar’s approach to movies is similar to Laika, who has produced “Coraline,” “ParaNorman,” “The Boxtrolls,” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” While Laika films don’t have villains in the traditional sense of classic Disney films, the films produced by that studio tend to delve into truly dark territory beyond the picture’s aesthetic.
Even several Dreamworks films feature villains, especially when we consider the “Shrek” films are essentially just parodies of films from Disney’s “renaissance” period. When Dreamworks, the biggest purveyor of the unnecessary animated dance party to close out a movie, still has villains in its movies the question arises as to what happened to villains.
In the Disney films myself and many others grew up with, there is the immediate introduction of a villain, usually noted by their dark clothing. (Think about it: Cruella De Vil, Gaston, and Captain Hook are really the only Disney villains who wear clothing where the dominant color isn’t black or purple.) Disney villains are often distinguished by their desire to stop at nothing to get what they want, be it King Triton’s trident, gold in Virginia, or Esmerelda and state-sponsored discrimination against a specific race of people.
What’s more striking is the motivation of those characters for committing often heinous acts is usually made very clear from the beginning. In the instance of Professor Rattigan in “The Great Mouse Detective,” he is motivated to kidnap Flaversham and his daughter because he knows both of those pieces can help him with his plan to overthrow Mouse Britania. His end game is to rule all of “mousedom” and outsmart Basil, which fuels everything he does in the movie.
This isn’t really the case with a lot of modern Disney movies. In “Frozen,” we are initially shown the Duke of Weselton, who has a strong desire to capture the mysteriously cut-off kingdom’s trade resources. Based on everything that goes on in the film, right down to him calling Elsa a monster when her powers are revealed, you would assume he’s the villain.
This is one of modern Disney’s favorite strategies in story telling: the red hering. The villain of Frozen ends up being Prince Hans, Anna’s love interest. While I am all in favor of twists in storytelling, the reveal of Prince Hans being the villain just doesn’t work. He has very little motivation for what he does in the movie other than what is revealed in the film’s third act. Furthermore, his reasons for courting Anna for marriage make no sense. If he just wanted to get close to her and gain her respect, it’s safe to assume he could have just tried to befriend her. It’s well-established in the film everyone in the surrounding kingdoms knows about how reclusive Anna and Elsa have been since their parents’ death, so it’s safe to assume if Hans wanted to just befriend her, she probably would have given him her unyielding loyalty.
A similar thing happens in the plot of “Big Hero 6,” although in that film the issue is more so that the presumed villain was framed by the actual antagonist, which is much more forgivable.
The other common failure of storytelling in modern Disney films is when the villain is a mystery. Generally, as seen in “Zootopia” and “Wreck-It Ralph,” something is wrong with the universe of the film and there is an antagonist who is causing the problem, which the protagonist has to solve. (Arguably, this is also what happens in “Moana.”) In “Wreck-It Ralph,” there are glitches in the games, which seemed to have been caused by Ralph jumping from game-to-game. As it turns out, these were actually caused by the actual antagonist of the film, who also sabotaged the game, resulting in the glitches seen in Vanellope. This one works because in the plot of the film the end results all make sense.
This works less well in “Zootopia,” a film everyone enjoyed more than me. In the world of the film, predators and prey live in harmony, but this is threatened when some prey go feral. After an initial false ending and increased prejudice in Zootopia, it is later revealed the timid sheep who works as the assistant mayor is behind the prey going feral. This ends up feeling very rushed and coming out of left-field for the same reasons why the Hans reveal doesn’t really work in “Frozen.” The motivations feel very haphazard, as if someone realized the final version of script was due to Disney and they didn’t have a villain. While the overall ending of “Zootopia” works, the reveal of the antagonist feels like such a twist, it catches one by surprise for all the wrong reasons.
But having an animated film with no villain can work. Studio Ghibli has made many films with no villains and they continue to endure, never ceasing to be a delight on every viewing. Illumination’s “Sing” is another film that, while not high art, manages to be a fun, light-hearted movie without a villain, although I would like to think capitalism is the villain in “Sing.” The movie is ultimately about a bunch of animals in a singing competition and it fulfills its mission. It’s fun and the plot actually makes sense, even if it seems largely like an excuse to have a bunch of stars singing popular songs from the past forty years.
While an animated film can succeed without a villain, the tendency to not have a villain as seen in classic Disney films can result in films not working because of poor scriptwriting. There is no reason why films should try to avoid a menacing villain as children can handle characters who behave in an almost unbelievable way. After all, we have enough people in the government and other positions of power whose behavior isn’t too far removed from the villains we saw in cartoons as children. Shouldn’t art imitate life, even if it’s to provide an escape?
The Thrilling Conclusion!
I woke up in my darkened hotel room, disoriented by the blackout curtain. The alarm on the other end of my king size bed was beeping and I rolled over to turn it off. As with the previous morning, I hopped out of bed and did some stretches and lunges before throwing on pants, a blazer, and the shirt I bought the night before at SuperTarget.
While I lamented the small selection of breakfast foods at the TownePlace Suites, I was ecstatic at the selection of items at the Hampton Inn. Biscuits and gravy, cereal, fruit, oatmeal, waffles, coffee, juice, tea. How could I pass up a breakfast that had both oatmeal and biscuits and gravy? I grabbed some items and sat down at a table with a copy of the USA Today and a cup with a mustache on it.
After breakfast, I called my mom who had been watching my cats for me. We talked about the final leg of my trip before I packed my things and checked out, grabbing a “happy kit” from the front desk before getting in my car. I drove to Hy-Vee again, looking for a beer called Jesus on a Forklift brewed by Exile Brewing Company in Des Moines, but I found out it is only available on tap. I made it out of Hy-Vee, but not before buying more snacks for the road, some Chinese food, and a six-pack of Exile’s Ruthie Blond Lager to share with people in Milwaukee.
I sat in my car and queued up Too Bright by Perfume Genius.
“It’s time to go home,” I said. I backed out of my parking spot and headed to I-380.
Let’s face it: There is no route across Iowa that doesn’t feel boring. I have a friend who once told me his family wants to abolish Iowa because of how dull the drive is. I usually scowl at him or roll my eyes, but the next time he points it out I will probably agree.
As I drove past the harvested fields, I kept wondering if this drive was me doing penitence for the arguing I did with community elders earlier this year, or for not really appreciating someone who really seemed to care about me until I was on my back in the ER, him by my side.
I eventually made it to Walcott and went to use the bathroom, but because of how many travelers there were, I ended up going to a McDonald’s–did you think I would go to the I-80 Truck Stop?–and then eating the Chinese food from Hy-Vee. As I shoveled the lo mein noodles in my mouth, I started crying because I forgot how good Hy-Vee Chinese food is and I cry when I eat really good food.
I got back on the interstate and nothing happened until I got to Rockford, other than me contemplating my place in the universe. Shortly outside of Rockford, I was trapped in really bad traffic as a result of trucks breaking down, which meant I spent about an hour in the Rockford area. I drove past the exit for Rockford University and wondered what would have happened with my life if I had accepted the scholarship I was offered and gone there instead of DePaul University.
By the time I got to Beloit, I was pumped. “I made it to Beloit! I’m almost home,” I told myself, before debating if I should stop and get pizza at Domenicos. (If you’re ever in Beloit, you need to stop at Domenicos and have pizza.) I decided to keep driving, the rain pounding on my still-dirty car as I played Middle Cyclone by Neko Case.
Music: “Finale” from In the Heights
I did it. I made it back to Milwaukee. The traffic was lighter than I was expecting, although that might have been because it was the day before Thanksgiving. I got back to my apartment and happily walked through the door, although my cats only seemed excited to have me back to feed them.
And then it hit me.
I didn’t listen to the original cast recording of Falsettos the entire time I was driving.
I awoke in my hotel room and started my day like I normally do, with stretching and doing some exercises. I went down to the lobby for the free breakfast and was a little disappointed by what was there, although I was excited by the giant cauldron of oatmeal. (What? I like oatmeal.)
I sat at the table, reading the Ames Tribune while watching CBS This Morning. As I sipped Lemon Lift tea from a cup with a sleeve that said, “I Wake Up Like This,” I turned my head up at just the right time to see a story about parents in Dubuque trying to challenge The Perks of Being a Wallflower. “Oh, come on!” I yelled at the TV.
“Is everything okay?” a hotel employee asked.
“Oh, yes,” I said sheepishly after realizing what I had done.
I went back up to my hotel room and got ready before packing my bags and loading them into my car, heading out to my engagement in Ames.
I had a splitting headache and felt sick to my stomach. My thing in Ames had gone long and I found myself crawling into the Village Inn on Lincoln Way to get some pie. The rain was beating down on me because of the wind and all I could think of was, “Oh God, I have to drive back to Milwaukee in the wind and the rain. This should be fun.”
I sat down at a booth, trying to shield my eyes from the bright, pastel signs. I only wanted pie initially, but I talked myself into getting breakfast because like tacos, I believe breakfast consumed at any hour of the day solves everything. I placed my order and felt the urge to curl up under the booth and close my eyes, hoping the headache would pass. My food arrived and I devoured it, finding my headache starting to subside. The waiter handed me my cherry pie and I ate it, remembering trips to Village Inn with my mother when I was a child and late nights spent eating pie in high school.
I then drove to the Wheatsfield Cooperative, which has been open for more than 40 years. As someone who is very enthusiastic about cooperatively-owned businesses, it was exciting to go to a business and see one that has thrived in a community and expanded. Honestly, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven when I saw the prices of the coconut milk creamers, the selection at the meat department, overheard the conversations happening among the customers. It was also what I always dream of cooperatively-owned businesses being, where all of the people in the community feel comfortable and buy local, organic goods.
(They had just reopened the hot bar for the first time in months and the chicken was incredible.)
I asked my mom to look at the radar, so I headed east on Highway 30, which isn’t nearly as boring as Highway 20. When you travel on Highway 30, you still encounter the problem of the drive not being particularly exciting, but at least you pass things like Marshalltown and the Meskwaki Hotel and Casino.
I eventually accepted between the wind, rain, and setting sun, I didn’t feel safe trying to get to Milwaukee that evening and would just spend the night in Cedar Rapids. At this point, my headache had come back, so staying in Cedar Rapids seemed like a really good idea. I booked a room at the Hampton Inn off of Collins Road and then headed there, but not before Waze suggested I take a gravel road most of the way there. I would normally have no problem driving on a gravel road because I learned how to drive in Iowa. That said, I can comfortably drive on a gravel road when it’s dry and daytime. I can maybe handle a wet gravel road in the daytime or a dry gravel road at night, but not a wet gravel road at night. I eventually turned around, stopped at a gas station, and headed into Cedar Rapids.
Music: “Stop Desire” by Tegan and Sara
I’ve always had a soft-spot for Cedar Rapids. When you’re a kid who misses the big city and always feels uncomfortable where you live, Cedar Rapids feels like a godsend.
As I entered the city, I instantly felt at ease while I drove past Westdale mall. I had switched to another GPS app after the gravel road incident and headed to the NewBo area, but not before sabotaging myself by taking a wrong turn and not listening to my GPS app. As I drove past the NewBo Alehouse and the NewBo City Market, I thought, “This is what I wish the Third Ward in Milwaukee was. This feels hip, not douchey, and a place where a broader population can enjoy the businesses.
I parked and rejoiced over people in Cedar Rapids being able to parallel park well*. I stopped in Raygun’s store in Cedar Rapids to look around and try to not buy everything in the store since Raygun is the maker of my favorite shirts and some of my favorite magnets. I convinced myself to only walk out with a sticker and mug for myself and magnet for my sister, but enjoyed every moment of walking around a store for a company I’ve been a fan of since they were Smash.
As I was driving on I-380, I was reminded of how you know you’re in Cedar Rapids because you smell it. I was also reminded of something I often found during my trip, which was how Iowa really hasn’t changed in five years. There was the U.S. Cellular Arena, Fox Eye, Rick’s. The only thing I immediately noticed that was different was the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Cedar Rapids, which is a development I applaud because I want to stay at a hotel with warm chocolate chip cookies before walking to a play at Theatre Cedar Rapids.
I arrived at the hotel, tucked near Rockwell Collins’ headquarters. I checked in and was given directions to Hy-Vee, Target–“We have a SuperTarget!”–and the movie theater that is “in walking distance when the weather isn’t this terrible.” I walked down the hallway to my hotel room, making a mental note that I prefer higher floors because something unnerves me about being on the ground floor.
I opened the door and walked into the cozy room, immediately excited at the sight of an armchair and a desk. “Why didn’t I stay at a Hampton Inn in Ames?” I thought.
“Because the TownePlace Suites was less expensive,” I told myself.
After getting settled, I went to Hy-Vee, which is the main supermarket chain in Iowa. Similar to when I was at Bar La Tosca, I had an experience of reverse sticker shock because a bottle of store brand acetaminophen was less expensive than I was anticipating. I went back to my car, took the medicine, and looked around at how things hadn’t changed since I was a kid. I remember seeing the Collins Road Hy-Vee as a child and in the shopping center near the Hy-Vee, there was still an Old Navy and a Barnes and Noble my mom would take me and my sister to before they opened in Waterloo. As the rain fell on the windows of my car, now dirty from the gravel road, I felt comforted while my headache slipped away.
I went up to SuperTarget and snapped a picture for my mom, who always misses the SuperTarget in Waterloo. For those of you who have never been to a SuperTarget, but still think Target is the greatest place on earth, all I can tell you is it is like a really big Target with an expanded grocery section.
“But Targets have grocery sections, Monica.”
Ah, but these have deli and bakery counters and a full produce selection. The aisles are longer and the selection of goods broader. I only needed to pop in and buy a clean shirt to wear the next day, but I had to walk around because I hadn’t been to a SuperTarget in six years. Like the buildings visible off of I-380 and the Barnes and Noble on Collins Road, it was comforting to walk around a store that felt exactly like the one I grew up shopping at in Waterloo.
I decided to then walk around Lindale Mall while I decided what to do for dinner. I was surprised by how empty the mall was since the malls in Milwaukee always seem to be swamped when you get closer to the holidays, but it made it nice to walk around, stretch my legs, and think while I popped in to different stores.
I eventually decided on Cheddar’s for dinner because everything in the area seemed to be a chain, but I knew I had enjoyed eating at Cheddar’s in Lansing, Michigan.
I sat down and ordered iced tea before sitting at a booth and reading. Dinner was going fairly well, even if I was annoyed by the music for the evening mostly being break-up songs from the past ten years. (How I managed to not sob into my chips and queso while “The One That Got Away” by Katy Perry played is beyond me.)
Then the quickest way to ruin dinner for me happened at the Cedar Rapids’ Cheddar’s. They played “Breathe” by Michelle Branch over the speakers and I felt my appetite disappear while my right eye started twitching.
“Please. You can play ‘Everything We Had’ by The Academy Is right now and that would make me feel happier,” I thought. “I can’t stand this song.”
My disdain of “Breathe” stems not from hearing it too often on the radio as a kid, because if that was the case, why do I love Dido’s “White Flag”? I dated someone who had a habit of doing an acoustic cover of “Breathe” while warbling off-key. As a result of this, I have developed a deep hatred of that song and find any situation I’m in ruined if that song starts playing.
I folded my hands and furrowed my brows, looking at the spicy chicken and rice (with salad!) I no longer had an appetite for. “Is everything still okay?” the waiter asked.
I wanted to say, “No, you just played ‘Breathe’,” but instead I said, “I think I’m ready for the check.”
I left the restaurant and headed back to the hotel, ready to get cozy with math curriculum while I sipped tea in the armchair. At ten o’clock, I turned on the evening news, wondering how it was possible for Bruce Aune and Joe Winters of KCRG to have seemingly not aged in the five years I had been away from Iowa. I looked at the forecast and planned my trip for the next day, before falling asleep in my room.
*People in Cedar Rapids always seem to be really good at parking, but when you live somewhere where people seem to struggle with parallel parking, you really appreciate good parking.
I haven’t been to Iowa in five years.
I’m sure if I sat down with a therapist, I can find some deep reason as to why I have managed to not visit the state I’m from, but I chalk it up to me not having a reason to go back.
I was asked to go out to Ames for something on November 22, so I happily hopped in my car and headed west from Milwaukee.
I haven’t done a road trip since college and even those road trips consisted of me driving from Michigan to Milwaukee to visit my mom. I was excited for this trip and had a bag of snacks on my front seat as I pumped up the music while heading towards Madison. I drove past the exits for places I had heard of, but never visited. Oconomowoc! Pewaukee! Delafield! Jefferson! I made it to Madison, “Gonna Make You Sweat” blasting from my speakers, a vegan chocolate chip cookie in my hand. I could do this. I was going to make it to Ames and have a good time.
What most people will not tell you is the drive from Madison until Dubuque is very dull. While driving through Iowa involves a lot of going past corn and soybean fields, you will see the occasional exit where there’s a gas station or a McDonald’s or both. Driving through this portion of Wisconsin largely involves going past a lot of exits and watching the rolling hills, which does add to a little bit of nice scenery. The unfortunate thing is this seems to go on forever.
Music: “Invisible Light” by Scissor Sisters
You know you’re getting closer to Dubuque when you see billboards for the casinos more frequently. This was exciting to me because getting to Dubuque meant I could get out and stretch my legs. I crossed the Mississippi River, but not before yelling “No, you don’t,” at the sign saying “The People of Iowa Welcome You,” because the only way people in Iowa welcome you is in the style of “Iowa Stubborn.”
I stopped at the Visitor’s Center in Downtown Dubuque, where I learned Visitor’s Centers tend to be gift shops with those giant racks filled brochures on area attractions. It was nice to walk around and I was able to grab a map of Iowa and a visitor’s guide to Ames, neither of which were put to use on my trip. I then hopped back in my car and headed towards Waterloo and Cedar Falls. I decided to play the Original Off-Broadway Cast Recording of Fun Home, because nothing seemed more fitting for my drive towards the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area than a musical about coming to terms with your past, particularly your childhood.
I also wanted to cry.
For those who thought Highway 151 between Madison and Dubuque was dull, you’ll despise every second of Highway 20 between Dubuque and Waterloo. What was strange to me was I distinctly remember taking that trip multiple times as a kid. I have vivid memories of going to Dubuque with my mom so I could compete in state music competition at Dubque Senior High School, which is a gorgeous building.
Why was I finding this drive so dull? Was it because I was driving and not the person who was in the front passenger’s seat, dressed well and ready to nap at a moment’s notice? Or was it because it was dark and it felt like it was just me in my tiny Honda, belting out “Changing My Major”?
When I hit Independence, I got off at an exit to try to find a Burger King because I was hungry and dried cranberries, sesame sticks, and granola bars get old after a certain point. I didn’t find the Burger King, but I grabbed a much-needed bottle of water at a Casey’s General Store and patted myself on the back for not buying a slice of pizza.
Music: “Emotion” by Carly Rae Jepsen
I had every intention of stopping in Cedar Falls, maybe getting something to drink from Cup of Joe, and then heading to Ames, but those plans fell through. Getting to Waterloo and Cedar Falls meant I was almost to Ames and I just wanted to get to my hotel and have dinner.
I eventually called my Dad to talk to him to avoid going stir-crazy, which is inevitable when you drive for more than five hours. He encouraged me to drive at the speed limit because I had out-of-state plates, and I told him, “I know. I saw that episode of The Good Wife.” We later talked about unions and I told him about someone who asked me if I was joining a union. “I mean, is the pope a Jesuit?” I said.
“Does a shark shit in the ocean?” my dad added.
(My Dad is a car-hauler, so he confirmed to me that, yes, the route I took was an exceptionally boring route.)
I eventually got to I-35 and right as I was going on the ramp from Highway 20 to I-35, I got to the Lady Gaga part of my travel playlist. “Bad Romance” came on over the speakers and I thought, “I’ve got this. I can make it to Ames.”
Music: “Edge of Glory” by Lady Gaga
When booking a hotel, booking one labeled as “new” doesn’t hurt. However, it’s best to maybe look into how new the hotel is, because otherwise you may have the experience I had when arriving at the TownePlace Suites in Ames.
The hotel, which is located in a corner where all of the hotels in Ames seem to be clustered, had an incredibly empty parking lot, leaving me to wonder if it was just going to be me and the staff at a four-story extended stay hotel. I checked in, spoke with the very friendly front-desk clerk who was from Milwaukee, and headed up to my room.
The room was very cozy and had a kitchenette that was better stocked than I anticipated–how many plates does one person need?–but it lacked a desk. I’m a weirdo, but because of how much writing I do both on my laptop and in notebooks, I truly love having a physical desk to sit at because it helps me divide leisure and business when I’m in a hotel. In fact, there wasn’t even a chair, which meant I ended up abandoning meditation because it felt weird while I was sitting on my bed.
That said, it’s a very nice hotel and I felt spoiled by the Elfa closet in the hotel room. It was nice to have a hook to hang my scarf on.
I then hopped in my car and headed to Target where I bought some mouthwash and almost started crying at the sight of Anderson Erickson Egg Nog because I thought, “I’m with my people.” (Anderson Erickson, as well as Casey’s General Store pizza and Hy-Vee Chinese food are very Iowa-specific things.) From there I went to Downtown Ames to meet an old friend.
Bar La Tosca is a cozy, but eclectic space with delicious food. I also experienced reverse sticker shock when I was reminded I was in Iowa, and most things are cheaper in Iowa. I had a nice chat with her and we then went to a self-serve wine bar with a really comfy couch, before heading to chat at another place. I eventually decided to head back to the hotel, where I contemplated my place in the universe before putting snacks from a food co-op on the counter of the kitchenette.
I would go to the movies with a guy I dated and as we were leaving, I would notice the moon. I would comment about it and he would just say, “Huh” or “That’s nice,” as I looked in wonderment.
During one of these moments where I stood in amazement at the moon, I howled at it after being encouraged earlier in the evening by one of my neighbors to do so. I normally wouldn’t do this as I’m one of the most restrained, internalized people you will ever meet, but I had spent the previous evening in the ER and I didn’t care what I did that day, I just wanted to feel alive and normal.
I was driving home from a potluck tonight when I noticed an orange moon hanging above Lake Michigan. As I drove up Lincoln Memorial Drive, I kept hunting for a place to park so I could pull over and look at the moon. I found a spot, parked my car, and jumped out. I kept running around the beach, noticing how perfectly the moon was reflected on the lake. I didn’t care about how sand kept filling my ballet flats or how the lake wind kept whipping around my skirt or that it was pitch black outside.
As I stood looking at the moon, I thought about my neighbor who had previously encouraged me to howl at the moon told me on Thursday night at a full moon celebration to stay until I saw the moon. I made excuses–I wanted to do some writing, I had to work in the morning–as I continued walking to my car. The moon I was looking at tonight was exactly the one I wanted to see, exactly how I wanted to see it.
I had a perfect view of the moon, illuminating the night as I stood there feeling at peace as I heard the waves of Lake Michigan lap against the sand.
Once upon a time, in the year 2012, a film called “Snow White and the Huntsman” was released in a year where the world received two Snow White films–the other was “Mirror, Mirror.” The film earned almost $400 million worldwide and in an ivory tower, executives at Universal Pictures decided to greenlight a sequel. After a bit of complications, production on the film began and almost four years after the release of “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” was released.
Despite how well “Snow White and the Huntsman” did at the box office, the release of “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” feels like a bit of a surprise. I remember watching the first film on HBO while bored and finding myself bored every time Charlize Theron wasn’t on the screen, chewing scenery. I also remember having a hard time believing Queen Ravenna (Theron) would feel threatened by Snow White (Kristen Stewart) and wishing the movie wasn’t trying so hard to be a Serious, Gritty Reboot.
Thankfully, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”–oof, this might be the clunkiest title for a film not based on a young adult series–has gotten rid of Snow White and a serious demeanor. The film, however, feels more like it should be a direct-to-video release instead of a major motion picture because of the clunky narration (Liam Neeson), poor narrative logic, a message pounded over the audience’s head and a pop song that was just inserted at the end of the movie. Which, no offense to Halsey, but when your first movie has a gloriously epic Florence and the Machine song, you need to have a song that can compete.
The odd thing about “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is it’s incredibly dark and I don’t know how it got a PG-13 rating since there is blood shown in this movie as well as some sideboob. What is also interesting is the film manages to be both a prequel and a sequel to a movie and either way, I don’t think we asked for either.
At the start of “The Huntsman: Insert Caption Here,” we meet Ravenna, who kills a king by putting her finger on a chess piece. That’s right, Ravenna kills a man while playing chess and this happens in the first five minutes. She becomes queen with her sister, Freya (Emily Blunt), at her side. Freya is pregnant and after she gives birth to her daughter, she goes to be with her lover. Unfortunately, it appears her daughter was murdered by her lover and this unleashes an ice-based power in her. Freya heads to the north, where everyone there talks like they were raised by Groundskeeper Willie and she becomes queen, raising an army from children her army kidnaps and in the process she outlaws love. Unfortunately, two of her soldiers, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain) fall in love and Freya punishes both of them.
Seven years later, Snow White has vanquished Ravenna and her kingdom is trying to get rid of Ravenna’s mirror. This sends Eric and Nion (Nick Frost) and Gryff (Rob Brydon) on a quest to find the mirror and destroy it, even though it seems to have the power to drive non-magic wielding people insane.
Now that I type up the plot, it seems to make less sense, particularly compared to the first film.
At some point, you had to wonder what the Universal executives were thinking when they signed off on this film. I’m sure they were more than okay with Freya essentially being Elsa from “Frozen,” but a sadist and with even more emotional baggage. But this film has some of the clunkiest narrative I’ve ever seen and I voluntarily watched a Disney Channel original movie.
The “good guys” and the “bad guys” are clearly labeled in this film based on their positions on love. The good guys believe love conquers all, while the bad guys believe love makes you weak and ruins you. It oddly feels like the movie should have been released during Valentine’s Day weekend instead of in April because it’s a movie that’s not quite a summer blockbuster. The movie even has a plot around how dwarfs hate each other and implies the very uncomfortable situation as to how dwarfs tend to reproduce. But don’t worry, even Nion and Gryff can find love.
Then there’s the accents the actors use in this film, which might not have bothered me if I hadn’t started watching “Outlander.” Hemsworth is still sporting his Scottish accent from the first film, but Chastain’s accent seems to change from scene from scene, as if she was trying to figure it out as they went through the filming process. But it seems odd because only Freya’s soldiers seem to sport Scottish accents because everyone else has a British accent, unless director Cedric Nicholas-Troyan decided Scottish accents made for a good distinction of Northerners.
Improbably, this movie is thoroughly enjoyable if you know what you’re getting yourself involved with. At the screening I attended, I noticed a lot of walkouts, particularly people with younger children. Yes, this movie is incredibly dark, but it also has Hemsworth walking around with a big goofy grin on his face the entire movie, even winking at a girl who is the latest child to be turned into one of Freya’s soldiers. Theron is there, chewing scenery in every scene she appears in, especially at the end of the movie where she’s manipulating what looks like tar that also spews out of her mouth. Blunt, although giving the most restrained performance of the film, is also capable of spewing out bizarre dialogue and giving a well-rounded performance that feels like it’s aware of everything else going on around it.
Even more baffling with this film is it having the subtitle of “Winter’s War” and trailers that seem to promise as much batshit insanity as possible from Blunt and Theron, most of it is spent on the road with Hemsworth and company as they try to find the mirror. It has more of a feel of a historical comedy for a good half of the film than an action fantasy film with a war. (And there’s not much of a war. Sorry.)
The movie feels like it got the memo as to what the audience liked about the film the first time around and upped it for this prequel/sequel, which oddly works if you know going in what you’re getting. This is a movie where in the last 20 minutes Ravenna wears three different outfits for no better reason than, “Let’s see how many stunning, over-the-top costumes we can put on this character.” “The Huntsman: We Left Out Snow White” is a film that really has no reason to exist, but it’s here with a seeming motto of “Go Big or Go Home.”
“The Huntsman: Winter’s War” might be the campiest wide-release, major studio movie that will come out in 2016 and it feels like we should applaud it for simply existing and sticking to its artistic convictions, as bizarre as the movie is at times. If only it had gone will a less clunky message and had a better end credits song.