Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters represents the latest salvo in Hollywood’s barrage of “gritty/clever” updates on classic fairy tales, the littermate of Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood, Beastly, etc. (It won’t be the youngest of the lot for long, with Jack the Giant Slayer and Maleficent on the way.) All things considered, it’s been a brutally banal run. In a risk-averse industry of copycats, uninspired genre/subgenre streaks are not all that unusual, but still, there’s usually a progenitor, a movie that blows up the box office and triggers the cascade. With a little luck, there’s even a clever meta-flavored response to the mediocrity, meaning every trend at least yields one or two solid films. (Well, usually—good luck finding a cinematic alpha for Hollywood’s latest Grimm phase. Maybe it’s nothing more than the robust overseas box office these films tend to generate?) Unfortunately, Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel is just another entry in Bland Fairy Tale Theater, a shapeless riff on those hapless German siblings with the worst parents ever.
Just in case you aren’t hip enough to have read, have had read to you, or even heard of one of the most famous folk tales in Western civilization, Wirkola opens by completely recounting the entire morbid tale on screen. (If you don’t need a recap, you can amuse yourself during this time by tracking all the cuts and smudges on young Hansel and Gretel that appear, disappear and reappear, completely disconnected from anything actually happening onscreen to cause them.) After an admittedly nifty title credits sequence—hey, the graphic designers were at least into their work—we find Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) “several years later,” in … not Germany? Salem during the Witch Trials, maybe? They mostly speak in American accents, but who knows—there are only about four specific locations besides the Scary Woods in the film. (And judging how often the characters bump into each other while in this particular forest, I suspect its full name was “The Really, Really Tiny Scary Woods.”)
Arriving in the nick of time to save a ginger-licious maiden (Joanna Kulig) from being drowned as a witch at the hands of Town Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stomare), Renner and Arterton strut about in in their leather fetish gear, wielding weaponry one couldn’t obtain from arms manufacturers today, striking quite the contrast with the sooty, torch-wielding townsfolk. The comically anachronistic attire, gear, and language that’s served up early in the movie could have spun “so boring, it’s bad,” into “so bad, it’s good.” Alas, seemingly interspersed between every five minutes of exposition from Ben (Thomas Mann), there’s yet another face-off with yet another witch, leading up to the big brouhaha with the baddest witch (a sadly wasted Famke Janssen). (This final encounter allows for one last recounting of one of the most famous folktales in Western civilization, this time introducing “gritty/clever” twists the audiences worked out reels before.)
Ultimately, it’s the depressing feeling of resignation that seeps in between every frame of Hansel & Gretel; when the gory fight sequences occur between those expository smoke breaks, they do so without relevance to the story being told, and, worse, absent any kinetic energy or spatial tension. At best, it half-assedly apes a decade of moments from the Wachowski/Snyder visual playbook. At its worst, the whole endeavor becomes exhausting enough to compel the audience to hope for at least one more dose of the neat animatronic Henson Creature Shop-esque troll, Edward (Robin Atkin Downes). (Even though the character does not make a lick of sense.)
In Dead Snow, the film that put Wirkola on the radar of the bigger studios, the director brought a bit of verve to his violent action scenes—and a hint of freshness to another recent Hollywood genre staple—zombies!—that shows little sign of dying out just yet. Hansel & Gretel lacks the spark, and the fun of his earlier effort, leaving audiences not so much with a moral of the story as with a question:
If one accepts that the modest-to-robust box office ensures we’re stuck with live-action fables for a while longer, why can’t we at least have a good one?
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Writers: Tommy Wirkola, Dante Harper
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen
Release Date: Jan. 25, 2013