When the Brothers Grimm wrote down centuries of Germanic folklore in the early 1800s, they were filled with violence, gore and depravity. Unlike the more sanitized 20th century revisions of these tales, the Grimm duo sought to caution children with threats of gruesome punishment. About 200 years after they first recorded the story of “Hansel and Gretel,” Hollywood filmmakers now seek to fulfill that threat of gruesome punishment for anyone foolhardy enough to buy a ticket to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
This movie has been a long time in the making. Originally announced in 2009, Hansel and Gretel was produced for a March 2012 release date. Hansel and Gretel got pushed back to this weekend in January, but one wonders if it should have been pushed back further. Like to the end of time.
Hansel and Gretel opens promisingly enough. After their parents raise some mysterious concern, young Hansel (Cedric Eich) and Gretel (Alea Sophia Boudodimos) are abandoned by their father in the woods, supposedly for their own safety. There, they just happen to stumble upon a delicious looking house made of candy and cannot help but be lured inside by a mean old hag (good call, Dad). The first five minutes or so are essentially a streamlined, but straightforward retelling of the Grimm adventure, only with more blood and immolation when Gretel pushes the evil witch into the fire. To my surprise, I was actually enjoying the prologue and was ready to be taken on an off-kilter romp. Then the rest of the movie happened.
As adults, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arteton) have decided that one supernatural mishap with a witch was a signal from God to kill every, single, last toad-kissing broad in Medieval-ish Europe (they still have guns, printing presses and tight leather pants for both Hansel and Gretel to slip into). Armed with only the finest rapid-fire crossbows, Matel-looking shotguns and a hearty supply of F-bombs, Hansel and Gretel cut a bloody path to the town of Augsburg, Germany. The mayor has hired them to investigate the mysterious disappearances of a dozen children. The town’s bafoonish sheriff (Peter Stormare) blames the witchcraft on a red haired beauty named Mina (Pihla Vitala), but she is too angelic-looking to Gretel and Hansel wants to light her up with something other than fire. No, a better bet is the creepy lady of the woods (Famke Janssen), who has the bad habit of turning demonic after talking to anyone for longer than 30 seconds. However, this blue-eyed wraith may be the most formidable of witches the siblings have ever faced. One who seems to know something about the parents Hansel and Gretel never saw after the whole abandonment-in-the-forest.
There’s a scene late in Hansel and Gretel, where Gretel tries to patiently explain her lifestyle to her amusingly love struck fanboy (Thomas Mann). When he declares that he too wants to be a witch hunter when he grows up, she replies, “We didn’t choose to do this.” That sums up the movie’s biggest problem: it cannot choose what it is. Earlier this week, I unfavorably compared the appearance of the movie, based on its marketing, to the 2004 trainwreck known as Van Helsing. Indeed, they share the same nutty origin of turning a classic story, be it horror or fairy tale literature, into a leather-clad Hollywood action formula. However, unlike that completely inept movie of the last decade, there are glimpses of a better film within Hansel and Gretel. The premise is totally absurd schlock, but there are a few moments where it almost embraces that. Unfortunately, it makes the repeated mistake of thinking audiences care about their lead ciphers or that they want to see an origin story for this pair of would-be superheroes.
The witches, like a great number of the VFX shots, are created with make-up and practical effects. While that ends up wasting Janssen’s gift for sultry villainy (just ask any Bond fan), it does create a humorous monstrosity reminiscent of the grotesque Deadites from the Evil Dead series. It is in that mindset, accidentally stumbled upon by writer/director Tommy Wirkola, that he ups the gore to outrageous levels for the witch deaths. If the picture moved a little more into absurdist camp like those early films of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, they might have had something. Instead, Hansel and Gretel showcases the cheesiest violence and anachronistic style you’re likely to see this month, outside of Tarantino, but still plays it straight. It’d be like if Bruce Campbell tried to interpret Ash in Army of Darkness as a PTSD survivor. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. This is especially true in Hansel and Gretel, because the supposed burden Gretel speaks of is never seen. We go from scared children to a pair of professional dead-witch-facilitators who say badass things like, “You f**king hillbillies!” to the townspeople and head butt the local sheriff in a roar of cinematic feminism. Also, how can Hansel and Gretel not possibly realize this is the town they grew up near before their parents disappeared?
Renner and Arteton are two gifted indie actors on the cusp of stardom who just keep picking the wrong projects. Whether it is unwisely stepping into Matt Damon’s shadow in The Bourne Legacy (2012) or thanklessly playing the love interests in Prince of Persia (2010) and Clash of the Titans (2010), both have starred in would-be blockbusters that don’t quite work. After several frustrating attempts for the both of them, it is no surprise they look so very bored with this deathly cursed film. And if your leads are clearly not having fun, what chance do the rest of us have?
The supporting cast goes through the motions with what they are given. Stormare mugs his way to the paycheck and Janssen lets the make-up do her acting for her. Vitala tries to put some life into Hansel’s love interest, who has a secret that anyone whose seen The Wizard of Oz (1939) can guess, but she cannot work miracles. The rest of the production is equally dutiful, though the use of CGI blood is a disappointment.
Ultimately, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is just as bland and forgettable as a title like that would suggest. There are moments of gleeful gore that hint at a schlocky B-comedy hidden somewhere, but it is nowhere to be found in the overall tone. Given that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay (the Anchorman dream team) produced this movie, its self-serious blandness is truly inexcusable. Near the end of the film, Hansel glumly warns his sidekick, “Whatever you do, don’t eat the f**king candy.” Perhaps, this movie should have.
Den of Geek Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Stars