The revisionist fairytale genre gets an R-rated upgrade.
2013’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a flick in the same vein as last year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, as it carries a title and premise so thoroughly ridiculous that it’s hard to believe a studio actually agreed to fund it. Shot in 2011 but shelved for ten months, Hansel & Gretel is good cheesy fun, a guilty pleasure of a horror-comedy with witches, ghouls, trolls and badass warriors. Surprisingly, Will Ferrell and Adam McKay – who collaborated on such comedies as Anchorman and Step Brothers – are actually credited as producers, which should give you an idea of the sort of tone the film adopts. With that said, though, the movie only takes off on occasion, as it too often halts the excitement to focus on drab storytelling. It shouldn’t be too hard to make an unapologetically silly flick with this premise, but the ultimate outcome is a mixed bag.
A revisionist version of the famous fable, the story begins as Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are abandoned in the forest as children and stumble upon a house made entirely of candy. It turns out a witch lives in the house who wants to eat the kids, but Hansel and Gretel throw the old hag in the oven instead. Fast-forward a few years, and the pair have grown up to become famous witch hunters. Summoned to the grim village of Augsburg by Mayor Engleman (Rainer Bock), Hansel and Gretel are tasked with retrieving stolen children and bringing the witch responsible to justice. Feeling out the community as they search for master witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), the duo immediately lock horns with the local sheriff (Peter Stormare). With Muriel looking to use the impending Blood Moon event to gift the local witch population with immense power, Hansel and Gretel seek help from comely villager Mina (Pihla Viitala), fan Ben (Thomas Mann) and a lonely trolled named Edward (Derek Mears).
Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola (2009’s Dead Snow), Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters exhibits a host of creative ideas. After consuming copious amounts of candy as a child, Hansel develops diabetes and hence requires insulin shots on a constant basis. The troll, Edward, is another stroke of brilliance; a Jim Henson-esque creation who’s actually afforded some dimension. The film suffers, though, from a saggy midsection. Hansel & Gretel runs a scant 85 minutes, yet feels like it outstays its welcome since it’s a very one-note premise. While it’s nice to see some attempt at actual storytelling, a lot of stuff feels like padding, including a romance subplot between Hansel and Mina that fails to gain much traction. One gets the sense that Wirkola should have cut loose and gone the whole B-movie hog. As it is, Hansel & Gretel only works in pieces.
It’s refreshing that Wirkola pursued an R-rated product. It may seem like an odd creative decision, but it makes the movie a thorough guilty pleasure. The swearing gives the one-liners more punch, and it’s a sheer delight to see witches being obliterated in showers of blood and viscera. The climactic showdown with a witch congregation is worth the price of admission alone. Wirkola has admitted he was influenced by the early works of Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson, both of whom excelled at ultra-violent horror-comedy. Hence, prepare to witness lots of good-natured, over-the-top gore. But while the major set-pieces are enjoyable, there’s not enough awesome mayhem. Furthermore, Hansel & Gretel is let down by Michael Bonvillain’s drab, ugly cinematography. It’s bathed in the typical “orange and teal” digital look, and the picture is often too dark, a flaw only exacerbated by the 3-D. A bright, vibrant colour palette, or even a more filmic look could’ve made the movie a lot more enjoyable. Also, did anyone else notice that the witches kill everyone on sight but often choose to flee from Hansel and Gretel even after disarming them?
Renner clearly had a ball playing Hansel here, putting on a great poker face to sell the campy absurdity. He’s amiable as an action hero, alternating between charming and intense. But it’s Arterton who makes the biggest impression, getting into the spirit of the movie and doing her best Han Solo impression to play Gretel. Surprisingly, she’s the one with the potty mouth, and the actress is great with one-liners. In the supporting cast, Famke Janssen looks to be an autopilot, while Stormare does a decent job as the arrogant sheriff who doesn’t want Hansel and Gretel to diminish his bravado.
When it works, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a real treat, a satisfying illustration of empty-calorie entertainment which is perfect for late-night viewing with beer and pizza. If you can accept the silliness and get in tune with the picture’s sense of humour, there’s fun to be had here, even though the movie is incredibly flawed.