by Katie Gile
In “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale gets a decidedly foul-mouthed update. Like 2012’s similarly gritty “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Hansel and Gretel spins off the classic story into something else entirely.
The movie begins with the familiar tale, as sister and brother are mysteriously taken into the woods by their father and left in the dark. After nearly freezing and starving, they find themselves at a cottage dripping with candy and, like any child who hasn’t heard this story, begin to eat pieces of the house. Then, the entrance to the cottage opens and the two traipse inside just to be confronted, caged, abused and nearly eaten by the evil witch within. The familiar story veers slightly when the witch tries to use her magic on the children, but finds it ineffective. That flash of time is enough for Hansel and Gretel to kill their first witch.
Seeming eons of woodcarving-like 3-D visuals and a time lapse later, the duo now work as bounty hunters and their notorious skill set has earned infamy. One day in a village where they’ve been hired to recover several lost children, they interfere with the wrongful accusation and near-execution of a redheaded woman.
It’s there that they make their presence and purpose known to all, including the town’s mayor (Rainer Bock) and its merciless bully of a sheriff (Peter Stormare). Shortly thereafter, Hansel and Gretel are on the hunt by day and drinking excessively by night.
Director Tommy Wirkola delivers a film that’s fun to watch, if nothing else. If Wirkola was looking to make the potty-mouthed, pre-teen fantasy of an adult fairy tale, he succeeded brilliantly in this shameless popcorn flick. With endless gore, violence, and a script — by Wirkola and Dante Harper — that seems as if it was written with a high quota of profanity to meet, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is not the movie to see for excellent writing or multidimensional characters.
Beyond the gratuitous swearing and gore, what stands out most throughout “Hansel & Gretel” is the art direction. Seeming to take no small amount of inspiration from the Goth-Steampunk aesthetic of “Van Helsing,” this movie mimics many costuming choices, but the overall look of the film is breathtaking and cohesive in its way. And because this movie is also available for viewing in 3-D, it throws in large measures of dizzying 3D cinematography and cheesy 3-D schtick, and calls it a day.
Hansel, played by Jeremy Renner, is Old Testament style in his treatment of witches. His mantra “The only good witch is a dead witch,” Hansel is armed for the job with plenty of bullets and beautiful toys to spare. Renner is every bit the tough guy we’ve come to expect from his previous films, but lacks charisma in the face of a poorly written script.
Gretel, played by Jemma Arterton, is a little more New Testament, looking for evidence of wrongdoing and offering second chances. The pleather-clad and corseted heroine is no pushover, however. With her own fully stocked arsenal of weaponry, including a very impressive crossbow, Gretel matches her brother on every battlefield. Arterton fills the tough-girl shoes well as the cleverer half of the deadly duo.
Together, they make for a dynamic and fun, if graceless team. Their cloud of swearing and tough-guy lines that we can’t seem to hear in triumph, despite their demonstrated abilities, doesn’t quite work. Despite the caliber of the actors themselves, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Playing their biggest nemesis to date is Famke Janssen as the Grand Witch Muriel. Janssen works well as an over-the-top witchy woman, but if you’re looking for any kind of actual performance, look elsewhere. She slinks across the set, hamming all the way, and drags the movie down. Playing the witches as if their character descriptions were merely the word “villain,” her overacting and that of this movie’s many witches is beyond compare. With CGI and tremendous prosthetics, the witches force the make-up to do the work. The only noticeable character choice seems to be whether “Witch #3” should have a shrill or husky voice. The layers don’t go beyond that.
It seems “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” was intended to be more of a fun escape than anything else, lacking taste, substance or passable writing. Though I would place the source material far above this film, I can’t help but wonder if the Grimm tales were received with equal distaste in their time. The moments in which the audience laughs at the movie’s crassness instead of as a part of it are the most telling. In this case, an R-rated fairy tale went a little too far.
Earning points for its fun style and losing points for general tastelessness and poor writing, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” doesn’t promise anything more than an entertaining popcorn movie and on that promise alone, it delivers.