Written by: Tommy Wirkola, Dante Harper
Directed by: Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, and Famke Janssen
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Whatever you do, don't eat the fuckin' candy."
Considering the film was delayed for what seems like forever and unceremoniously dumped into the January wasteland, it’s probably not too surprising that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a bit of a disappointment. Some might take umbrage with even having any sort of expectations for something called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters in the first place, but consider the talent involved: you’ve got Tommy Wirkola (director of the pretty good Dead Snow), Jeremy Renner (the reigning cinematic badass of 2012), and Gemma Arterton (the sadly underutilized Bond babe in Quantum of Solace), all gathered for the express purpose of twisting an old fairy tale into a splattery, action-packed romp. While none of these guys will be too mad at their agents for letting the film to finally escape (it’s not that bad), it’s probably not something that’ll shoot up to the top of their resumes, either.
In this version of the tale, Hansel and Gretel’s father leads them out to the woods and mysteriously ditches them before they stumble upon an old witch’s house. After gorging themselves on sweets and disposing of the old hag by shoving her into her own oven, they go on to gain fame as the region’s preeminent witch hunters. Their latest travels bring them to a small village that has seen nearly a dozen of its children mysteriously disappear, so they’re enlisted to get to the bottom of things and slay a bunch of witches along the way.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has plenty of problems, but you’ll notice right off the bat that tone isn’t one. This is an unapologetically silly premise, and nobody really shies away from that; when the adult Hansel (Renner) and Gretel (Arterton) saunter into the film, they’re busting up a town’s attempt to burn a falsely accused witch at the stake. The exchange ends with Arterton threatening to splatter the sheriff’s (Peter Stormare in Total Asshole mode) brains all over the “fucking hillbillies” in attendance. At the time, I was convinced that the film had spent up its allocated PG-13 f-bomb, but I must have forgotten that this is rated R. It’s a pretty “Hard R” too, which is probably the film’s saving grace since it allows Wirkola and company to spread around plenty of swearing, blood, and even some boobs. Without all of this, it’d be a fairly generic time-waster, but, as film’s main evil witch (Famke Janssen) says at one point, even the nicest rooms need a little bit of color (she then proceeds to make a guy’s head explode, so the exchange sort of perfectly sums up this film).
Unfortunately, Hansel & Gretel is just an okay-looking room at best, even with all the brains and guts sloshed all over its robust production design. While the effects and most of the make-up are spot-on, the cinematography is often too dark and chaotic to make for an effective action movie. It also doesn’t help that most of the set-pieces are repetitive and feel akin to watching someone play through the quick-time events on a video game (I know—probably the most cliché of all film criticisms at this point, but this one really earns it). Oddly enough, though, the sheer volume of them works in the film’s favor, as it’s so breezy and breathless that it’s nominally enjoyable from time to time, especially when Renner and/or Arterton (they get separated a lot) are free to kick ass (they usually dole out punchlines along with all the exploding body parts, which keeps things light-hearted).
I’d say the actual plot could use some work, too, but its threadbare nature helps the film avoid spinning its wheels too much. Things start to grind a bit towards the climax, where the obligatory backstory involving Hansel and Gretel’s childhood suddenly connects everything (it turns out that their dad wasn’t just being a deadbeat by ditching them in the woods, no matter how fun that idea is). There are hardly any plot developments to speak of, much less surprising ones, but, again, I must remind you: this is Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Its aspirations seem to be limited to sticking Gemma Arterton into tight leather and having Renner brood about the diabetes curse inflicted upon him as a child (I’m dead serious—he has to inject insulin every now and then, a wrinkle that would seemingly work its way into the plot, but nope!).
On top of those two (who are fine in the sense that both seem to be having a good time in obviously silly roles), you also get Famke Janssen as the main witch. She doesn’t go as broad as Charlize Theron did in Snow White and the Huntsman, but she’s serviceable; in fact, the most noteworthy thing about her casting is the rare opportunity to have two former Bond girls throw down (and perhaps marvel at the fact that Janssen could still pass as one 18 years after Goldeneye). Genre favorite Derek Mears also appears buried under some nice make-up as Edward, a troll with a heart of gold and a soft spot for Gretel; he only appears in a handful of scenes, but the movie ends with the fun notion that he'll continue helping the siblings in their future adventures.
Suffice to say, we probably won’t see more of those since this pass at the concept only milks it for about half its worth. It doesn’t feel quite as half-assed as most of these high concept mash-ups, but it’s maybe only a notch ahead of something like Van Helsing (which might be the ultimate backhanded compliment). Of all the talent involved, it’s probably most disappointing for Wirkola, who becomes the latest foreign director to get chewed up by the Hollywood machine; in this case, nine different producers were at the helm to snuff out whatever singular vision this thing could have had (the fact that Adam McKay and Will Ferrell were once attached suggests that this movie might have been a lot different once upon a time). I sort of find myself stuck in the middle with this movie; on the one hand, it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t live down to whatever expectations were set by the context of its release. On the other hand, though, it does only compare favorably to Van Helsing. I'm fine with damning this with faint praise, which is more than most films like this deserve. Rent it!
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