Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters review

A classic fairytale gets a violent spin, in the gloriously gory Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Here's Duncan's review...

Ever since the infamous Snakes On A Plane, it seems to me that Hollywood has been much more literal about how it titles its movies. Last year saw alone saw the Dark Knight rise in The Dark Knight Rises, the Avengers assemble in Avengers Assemble, and even Abraham Lincoln hunted vampires in, well, you get the idea.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is no exception. Wearing its torn-out heart on its sleeve, there was only ever going to be one question that needed asking: is it as much barmy fun as it looks? Thankfully, I’m pleased to say, it’s pretty much every bit the overblown, tongue-in-cheek, witch decimating schlockfest it promised to be.

After waiting patiently for a cinematic release since the start of last year, Hansel & Gretel was finally unleashed once Jeremy Renner’s amazingly quick ascent to Hollywood golden boy status was at full tilt, with both Avengers and The Bourne Legacy cementing his success in 2012 – after all, it accidentally worked wonders for Cabin In The Woods, when fellow Avenger Chris Hemsworth’s career rocketed while the film awaited release.

Meanwhile, Gemma Arterton has had much more artistic success and critical acclaim in her independent ventures such as The Disappearance Of Alice Creed and Tamara Drewe, while her choice of blockbusters have largely been disappointments with thankless roles. The remake of Clash Of The Titans should have been great fun, with a stellar cast and contemporary effects, but it was lifeless. The big screen outing for Prince Of Persia promised epic adventure under the watchful eye of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who more often than not makes thoroughly spectacular entertainment, yet it turned out to be a CGI mess in which Ms Arterton’s posh princess kept slipping into cockney knife fighter mode.

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As the titular Gretel though, she’s fantastic. The American accent seems a much more natural fit than a plummy British one (strange as she was born in the UK, but then again it works for Christian Bale) and it’s actually on her shoulders that most of the movie is carried, as she brings the right level of straight faced delivery, ass kickery and wry smiles to a role she seems to relish. I’ll champion most actresses willing to take on such an adult-oriented action role, and it’s a refreshing change when Gretel’s compromised by her brother’s libido, so more’s the pity that it’s not him that ends up captured.

With Witch Hunters having been released in America last month, the critical panning has been fairly uniform in its harshness, but I had an absolute blast with the film’s up-front, unpretentious delivery of slapstick horror. It’s a great example of doing what it says on the tin, and in its best moments plays well as an homage to The Evil Dead, though Renner could do with imbuing his character with the delirious charm of Bruce Campbell – at one point Hansel gets nicely drunk, which is much more entertaining to watch than his otherwise stiff role allows.

In fact, had the movie stuck to its more Evil Dead levels of insanity consistently, it would have been far stronger, as despite the sense of mischief running throughout there are moments of earnest melodrama which don’t quite work. It’s strange to criticise a film for attempting to have levels, but they serve no purpose in Hansel & Gretel, other than to slow down the pace. And while there may be moments of unintentional hilarity, when the movie’s surreal and gleefully bonkers humour hits the mark, you end up with such moments as a troll (who looks like Labyrinth’s Ludo) announcing his pedestrian name to great comedy effect.

Two cast members who never miss a beat, though, are Famke Janssen and Peter Stormare, who indulge every line they have with a meaty abandon; Janssen playing the head witch with her unnervingly natural mix of the sinister and sexual, while Stormare (who seems to be in everything I’ve watched so far this year) gets to spit out his dialogue and, shock, act like a rotter.

Explosive gore is another key to the movie’s fun factor; without it, things might have ended up more in line with the ever declining Resident Evil series of bloodless, CGI dullness. H&G throws buckets of blood at the screen as heads and bodies explode (the look on Ms Arterton’s face after one such splatter is priceless), while witches are burned, punched, shot and even sliced on piano wire, somehow all within a 15 certificate film.

It’s a testament to director Tommy Wirkola (of Dead Snow fame) that he intentionally made a PG-13 edit for the US test audiences that didn’t work, just to maintain the high levels of bloodshed for the R-rated version, which is an incredibly rare occurrence these days. I think we can all be thankful that Fox isn’t distributing it.

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Wirkola puts ingenuity and care in the depiction of the classically vile witches, as he does into the weapon design and gadgets; witches grabbing impromptu branches for brooms, leading to Return Of The Jedi style biker scout wipeouts and medieval miniguns causing mass devastation – Harry Potter this ain’t.

Sadly, while the action is consistent and fun, the terrible retrofitted 3D hampered my enjoyment quite heavily. Before the screening started, we were treated to a five minute preview of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which was bright, exciting and clear, with shuriken and bullets flying at the screen (it’s safe to say that the previewed fight scene involving Snake Eyes, Storm Shadow, jinx and a load of red ninjas, was better than the entirety of the previous G.I. Joe movie).

Hansel & Gretel just didn’t fare as well. There are a large number of scenes set at night that were so murky with the 3D glasses on that I’d ditched them within ten minutes, occasionally trying them again for the high speed action set through the forests, but it just muddled things. I watched the rest without the glasses, and only really noticed the odd blur here and there, with most of what I saw remaining in 2D. It saddens me a little that I could’ve copied and pasted that paragraph from far too many reviews I’ve written, but it’s always worth disclosing.

3D aside, it’s a gloriously gory spin on a the classic fairy tale, which absolutely has its heart in the right place and makes no bones about where it’s heading, or what it’s doing. Mainstream action horror movies are sadly few and far between, so Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters could really benefit from some box office support, as I get the impression from the credit sequence that should a sequel happen, with or without Jeremy Renner, it’d be even better.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is out on the 27th February in UK cinemas.

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3 out of 5