In one of the bonus featurettes that accompanies Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, writer/director Tommy Wirkola recalls sharing his idea for the movie with one of his film school teachers. The instructor, he says, told him to never speak of the idea again, unless he was in front of a Hollywood executive, because they’d buy it on the spot. And according to Wirkola, that’s exactly what happened.
The idea does make for one hell of an elevator pitch: Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by the parents in the woods, fall prey to a witch who intends to fatten them up and eat them. Unfortunately for the witch, Hansel & Gretel are clever children who end up killing the witch in her own oven.
This, of course, is the point at which the Grimm Brothers probably packed up their quills, thanked whatever nursemaid had told them the tale, and thought to themselves, “That’s a keeper.” Wirkola, however, wondered what happened after that. In his mind, it wasn’t enough for Hansel and Gretel to be happily reunited with their father (who had dumped the kids in the woods only because of the children’s evil stepmother). No, in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, the children never find their father, instead setting off on a life of witch hunting and killing for hire.
Naturally, things get very complicated very fast when they take a job in a village where numerous children have disappeared, and find out that an extremely powerful witch named Muriel (Famke Janssen) has plans for a ritual that will make witches even more powerful.
So let that idea sink in, hopefully free of flashbacks from such things as Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm (in which the titular heroes are con men who stumble across a true evil fairy tale), Snow White and the Huntsman (in which an armor-clad Snow White goes to battle), or SyFy’s Red (in which a modern descendent of Little Red Riding Hood joins the family werewolf-hunting business). Fairy tale reimaginings have been all the rage lately, usually with less than spectacular results.
To be fair to Hansel & Gretel, the film doesn’t try to be anything more than the title suggests. The Blu-Ray edition even includes an unrated version that promises more witches, more weapons, and more action. It bills itself as an action/comedy film, so when leather-clad Hansel and Gretel show up in town brandishing insanely large and ornate weapons, threatening to blow the sheriff’s brains all over the assembled “hillbillies”, you can at least tamp down any worries over the film’s Van Helsification by reassuring yourself that the film knows how silly it’s being. It doesn’t want to deconstruct the fairy tale or hold a mirror up to modern-day society. It’s a meat-and-potatoes movie that believes there’s no scene that can’t be livened up by obliterating someone’s head.
The over-the-top gore might be the true surprise of Hansel & Gretel. Shoulders are little more than golf-tees for doomed skulls. This is a film that likes to splatter brains on the walls, be it from gun, wand, troll fist, or witch’s curse. The unrated version definitely delivers on its promise of more, More! MORE!. It doesn’t make for a different movie, but if you want to see someone get their heart ripped out of their chest, or watch a cursed witch hunter vomit slugs onto a tavern floor before he explodes and coats the place with his innards, there’s much to recommend here.
For all of Renner and Arterton’s stylish leather clothing, and weapons that look like they sprang from a fever dream, it’s arguably the witches who are the stars of the show. Janssen relishes her role as Muriel, and Wirkola cooks up quite the Witches’ Sabbath to close out the film. There, you can finally see glimpses of Hansel and Gretel’s universe, one in which witches come from all corners of the globe, showing different marks and manifestations of their deals with dark forces. It doesn’t hurt that all of the witches apparently served an apprenticeship in the Buffyverse, where they learned mad fighting skills.
It’s a shame then, that for all its tongue-in-cheek attitude, Hansel & Gretel plays by Hollywood formula so much. There’s no suspense when you figure out that some characters are witches, or that certain characters will save the day in the end. The film moves along at a brisk pace, giving you the occasional sight gag (woodcuts of missing children on milk bottles) or anachronistic dialogue (such as Hansel’s contention that the best cure for a witch is to “set her ass on fire”), but it doesn’t seem willing to fully commit itself to its own sense of humor.
Renner and Arterton are both well-chosen for their roles, with Renner bringing a mix of awkwardness and stoicism to his role while Arterton carries herself with a blend of feral violence and been-there-killed-that calm. Overall, though, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters never quite takes flight and doesn’t do justice to the interesting universe that it’s created for itself.