Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Pihla Viitala, Thomas Mann
(Paramount Pictures; US theatrical: 25 Jan 2013 (General release); UK theatrical: 25 Jan 2013 (General release); 2013)
Fairytales have always been ripe for reinterpretation. They’re narrative stalwarts, old fashioned cautionary caveats made entertaining by the use of recognizable characters and storytelling simplicity. So this newfound desire to re-imagine and reinvent the time honored offerings of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson is more than a bit disconcerting, especially with misfires like Red Riding Hood (ugh!) and Snow White and the Huntsman (meh…) around to remind you why. While it would be easy to add Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters to such a growing, groan-inducing list, said rush to judgment would be rather premature. While far from a success, this intriguing oddball of a movie makes a case for its own obtuse homage logic.
The traditional take on the material is dealt with right up front. Young Hansel and Gretel are taken out to the woods by their suspicious father and forced to spend the night. They end up in the candy covered cottage of a witch, who they trick and then easily dispose of. Growing up, they become renowned paranormal bounty hunters, traveling the dim Dark Ages landscape of some unspecific time looking for hags and putting them out of their supernatural misery. When they arrive at one particular small town, a much older Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) recognize something familiar. Soon, they are face to face with a Queen Black Witch (Famke Jannsen) who intends on using a dozen children, and the heart of her White counterpart, to create an immortality spell for her broom-flying sisterhood. Hoping to stop them, the duo hook up with an angry local sheriff (Peter Stormare) and their obsessive number one fan (Thomas Mann) to take on the cruel coven.
Recalling the best…and worst, of Sam Raimi’s ridiculously fun Evil Dead trequel, Army of Darkness while falling into the traps of most mainstream Hollywood hackwork, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters belies its bungled release history. Originally made in 2011 and then “held back” for unknown reasons, it’s a borderline disaster saved by its director’s wildly warped vision. Tommy Wirkola is Norwegian, and perhaps best known for his Nazi zombie thriller Dead Snow, and he adds enough eccentric panache to the proceedings to keep us from shifting in our seats - and heading to the exit. There’s action o’plenty, a nice amount of gore, and even some gratuitous nudity by way of a last act dip in some “healing” waters. All the while, the filmmaker ups the fear factors by making his witches impossible ugly and vile. These are some nasty old crones. They’re fierce, fight like rabid animals, and never give up. Of course, they always seem to slip up, just when it looks like they will defeat their enemy.
This makes for some exciting moments. The rest of the movie, on the other hand, suffers from someone’s idea of meaningless modernization. Hansel and Gretel swear, peppering their too cute conversations and personal problems with the occasional ‘S’ and ‘F’ bomb. Our male hero also suffers from “the sickness” (read: diabetes - as a result of all that candy as a kid). This means he must take a shot, akin to Underdog’s Super Energy Pill, less his simply fall into a lump on the ground. It’s as if the movie is constantly at odds with itself, not quite sure what it wants to be and how to achieve said desperately divergent aims. On the one hand, Wirkola seems capable of creating an audience pleasing horror comedy, the jokes flying as fast and furious as the various witch body parts. Tinseltown, on the other hand, must have hated the R-rated romp and more or less emasculated it, trying to bring in the profitable PG-13 crowd.
The result is a well meaning mishmash that can’t quite gel into anything consistent. It stops and starts, entertaining us only to exasperate. It fluctuates wildly in tone, takes minutes to manage what other films do in seconds, and struggles against itself when it should flow and froth. There are elements here that are wholly unnecessary - a scene in a pub where the duo suffer their fan, a moment when Hansel meets his future wading pool paramour in the woods. Stormare, in fact, feels like a completely unnecessary addition, a stuffed human villain only around to act as a buffer from all the Broomhildas while characters such as The Mayor and the Black Witch’s supplemental ‘weird’ sisters are nothing more than excuses for exposition. Perhaps the biggest crime committed by this movie, however, is the one of potential. Done correctly, either Wirkola’s or the studio’s way, this could have been big, a tentpole franchise founded on both fear and familiar factors. Instead, it’s an intriguing failure foisted upon the first four months of the film season - never a good sign.
Still, there is enough about Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters to warrant some mild genre attention. It has some clever ideas, a few failed opportunities, and enough chutzpah to push it past the conclusion that it’s a complete bomb. It is definitely not perfect, but to be fair, neither is/was the Raimi ride that inspired it. One has to question the casting (were Renner and Artertron the right choices here) and there are sequences where editing obviously robs the story of some subtext (why is Gretel so distant and disconnected when she winds up back at her old house?). Still, when you consider its creation and where it wound up on the celluloid schedule, this is better than anticipated. It may run ramshackle over the fairytale that inspired it, but at least we gain a new kind of warning from this update: beware of suits suggesting unwarranted re-imaginings.