Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

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- January 25th, 2013 - Movie Reviews

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Gorily Creative Hansel & Gretel Lacking Magic

I didn’t realize going in that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was written and directed by Dead Snow impresario Tommy Wirkola. Considering the film was delayed for over a year, was barely screened for critics and was being more or less dumped by Paramount into theatres during the month of January, I can’t say my hopes were high, and even with Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton and Famke Janssen staring I wasn’t aching to give it a look.

PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

But had I taken a couple seconds and done a little research (my bad) I’d have realized who was at the helm and then a lot of the studio bewilderment and indifference where it came to the film would have made a ton more sense. When you watch Dead Snow, a Sam Raimi meets Peter Jackson gore-filled zombie comedy revolving around sexy young Norwegian medical students battling undead Nazis while on a ski trip, it becomes quickly apparent the guy’s funny bone is a little on the unique side. Mixing serious drama with outlandishly bizarre comedy and blood-splattered dismemberments, the movie attempts (not entirely successfully) to walk a fine line, and thusly it’s not a shock that film has generated a rather sizable cult following since its 2009 release.

Wirkola has taken the Grimm fairy tale of siblings Hansel and Gretel and attempted to do with it almost exactly what he did with Dead Snow. With tongue firmly in cheek, yet also intent on playing the drama at the core of his scenario as sincerely as possible, the writer/director wants to showcase something unusual and different yet at the same time flaunt theatrics similar to those found in popular second tier franchises like the Underworld and Resident Evil series. Mixing a bit of Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm with Raimi’s The Evil Dead while also splashing in a dash of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy and a smidgen of Jackson’s Bad Taste, his movie is as unusual as it is familiar, as eccentric as it is typical, and as such the man has crafted a surrealistic bit of gory insanity the point of which is undeniably going to be lost on most who view it.

A good thing? Well, while I certainly wasn’t a huge fan of Wirkola’s last film I certainly got a few kicks watching it, so seeing him come to Hollywood and gleefully subvert major studio convention is on the side of things I wholeheartedly support. Still, as great as the production design is, as sensational as the costumes are, as wonderful as some of the set pieces can be and as magnificent and unique as the grossly perverse gore effects are, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is head-scratching nonsense that does annoy. The movie never catches fire, doesn’t generate any steam and very seldom comes alive, the whole enterprise as dead as the decapitated corpses littering the supernatural fairy tale countryside the characters inhabit.

The plot begins with the familiar Grimm tale and then moves quickly many years into the future, Hansel (Renner) and Gretel (Arterton) now adults pursuing a life as bounty hunters specializing in the capturing and killing of witches. They are brought to a small village very near the home where they were once upon a time abandoned to solve the abductions of numerous children, finding themselves face-to-face against Muriel (Janssen), a supremely powerful High Witch looking to make her fellow spell-casters indestructible.

Problem is, this relatively straightforward and unimposing set-up never generates momentum, the secondary characters, most notably the town’s bigoted sheriff played with bored indifference by Peter Stormare, given so little to do their plight never resonates (save one notable exception, the crux of which I will not talk about in order not spoil it). Additionally, Hansel and Gretel are so one-dimensional they barely exist, their relationship never developing making their struggles to discover why their parents abandoned them all those years prior and what is required to defeat the current witch menace Muriel represents barely of consequence.

PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

Be that as it may, part of me can’t help but want to be nice to Wirkola’s Hollywood debut. The guy has a knack for creative bloodletting. On top of that, while the film is filled with plenty of CGI (some of it awesome, much of it silly, most of it fine if not worthy of comment one way or the other) that doesn’t mean he doesn’t eschew practical effects. In fact, one character, a gigantic troll named Edward (played by a suitably unrecognizable Derek Mears) is worthy of as many exultations and kudos I could throw his way, every appearance of the sad, rather pitiable, yet also dangerously violent, beast something to celebrate.

At not even 90 minutes it is reasonable to suspect that the version of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters hitting theatres might not be the same one that Wirkola originally intended. I have no way of knowing this, of course, but considering the release date delays and the way major studios typically react when they’re faced with a motion picture they don’t understand I can’t be the only one wondering about this. That said, as presented, even with moments of creativity worthy of applause, even though I think the director has talent, this movie is a misfire, and no amount of magic or witchcraft could bewitch me into saying otherwise.

Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)