When there are witches in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call? The new movie “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” (released Jan. 25) sets out to answer this question, guns (and crossbows) a-blazing. Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola (“Kill Buljo,” “Dead Snow”), this classic German fairy tale gets a new twist in the wake of all the recent fairy tale updates. Wirkola attempts to capture some of the whimsical nature from his previous films and take the story-you-only-thought-you-knew approach, but he fails miserably. Despite the playful title, it holds no substance with a script as thin as its characters, laughable special effects, and plot twists so obvious that Rod Serling is probably rolling over in his grave. Nevertheless, it does have some scarce, clever moments while blending the genres of action, horror, fantasy and black comedy.
The movie starts off strong with an aerial sweep over dark treetops and the moon high in the night sky. Next, we see two children abandoned in the woods who come across a house made entirely of candy. Its sole inhabitant is, you guessed it, a witch who tries to fatten, cook and eat the siblings, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase “stranger danger.” In a sweet sense of irony (pun intended), she is outsmarted by the two and ends up burning in her own oven. Made stronger by the experience, Hansel and Gretel dedicate their lives to hunting witches and protecting the innocent. The opening titles are an entertaining animation, depicting the success of their bounty hunting through newspaper headlines and the like. A number of years pass, and we are no longer presented with the pudgy German children we all thought of as kids. Now we have two of Hollywood’s most attractive leads: Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton (who exchanges her British accent for an American one). They team up to be the greasers of witch hunting, looking like total badasses with their leather coats and steampunk-like weapons. It is in this regard that I was reminded of such films as “Van Helsing” and “From Dusk Till Dawn.”
Their peculiar occupation brings them to the town of Augsburg to investigate the disappearances of several children, much to the disapproval of the town’s sheriff (Peter Stormare), who has a real attitude problem and would rather burn innocent women at the stake than take real action. The first confrontation between him and Gretel is quite humorous and will be saved for your personal viewing. From here, the movie starts to go downhill on a rampage of unstoppable disappointment. Despite a talented cast, they cannot repair the fact that Wirkola is unable to strike an acceptable balance between horror and humor. Moreover, his screenplay is just plain lazy and ridiculous. For instance, Hansel is forced to eat so much candy as a child that he becomes diabetic. Even worse, there is no chemistry between Renner and Arterton, who just seem to be going through the motions. Yes, they look totally cool when chasing witches through the forest, but I just didn’t buy into the whole sibling thing. Lastly, the special effects and makeup were mediocre at best. While the movie has an abundance of witches, they resemble a bunch of Goth girls from high school and fail to truly terrify. Even the one troll isn’t menacing in the least. It is also worth mentioning that this movie is rated R. There is plenty of violence to satisfy the Tarantino fans in all of us, with heads blowing off and bodies exploding. The use of the F-word, on the other hand, doesn’t really add much.
Nevertheless, the movie was not completely devoid of ingenuity. I felt that my overall interest gravitated to the production design, which is not easy for these types of films. They really nailed the old-fashioned European village look. I also enjoyed the superstition theme when it came to villagers capturing and burning witches, evoking history class lectures on the Salem Witch Trials. It really helps place this work of fantasy into a historical context, and ground it in reality. Even small things like glass milk bottles with pieces of parchment labeled “Have you seen this child?” and references to another fairy tale (hint: it involves porridge) add a nice touch.
For all its efforts, “Hansel & Gretel” is nothing special. It stands on the shoulders of greater movies and does none of them any real justice. Produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, I expected something much more epic and clever. My suggestion: Wait until this starts airing on cable TV during the Halloween season. Like a house made of candy in the middle of the woods, this movie should be avoided at all costs.