Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is the latest in a growing trend of genre mashups that retrofit familiar fairy tales or historical figures with action-packed supernatural elements. Similar efforts have experienced mixed (and in some cases downright poor) responses from critics and moviegoers but there’s still reason to believe that, under the right set of conditions, a film hybrid that refashions timeless stories with action-horror set pieces could provide a fun viewing experience.
After a nine month delay from its original March 2012 release date, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is finally here – starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as the titular survivors-turned supernatural bounty hunters. Shot entirely in 3D, does the film make clever use of its tongue-in-cheek setup and deliver a campy but exciting example of genre mashup done right?
Despite aiming for a deeper character story, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters only succeeds as mindless and overly-bloody entertainment that is about as thin as its fairy tale source material. Moviegoers who were intrigued by the film’s core premise and further enticed by the trailers will find exactly what they were expecting – and little more. Characters and story often take a backseat to action as Wirkola’s film is downright brutal – relying instead on a number of crowd-pleasing (read: bloody) moments to make it memorable. A fair share of moviegoers will likely be surprised by the amount of violence and contrived vulgarity in the movie – much of which comes across as forced-in for the purpose of marketing the experience as “hardcore” action-horror. For some viewers, the blood and gore will be Witch Hunter‘s biggest selling point, for others it’ll further undermine any (flimsy) attempts to be taken seriously.
The core setup for Hansel & Gretel, the Witch Hunters, isn’t all that different from the fairy tale. As children the pair, recently orphaned by their parents, stumble upon a delicious looking gingerbread house in the woods. However, when the witch inside attempts to prey on Hansel and Gretel, the siblings successfully fight back, burn the witch alive, and set the stage for a future work trade. Years later, Hansel and Gretel move from town to town hunting supernatural creatures via gadgets and blunt-force trauma. Following a string of child abductions, the siblings are contracted by the mayor of Augsburg – a job that puts brother and sister in the sights of an especially dangerous coven of witches seeking immortality.
Given that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters focuses more on blood-soaked action set-pieces rather than its titular heroes, the story is adequate – keeping moviegoers in the moment instead of exploring potentially underwhelming tangents. Still, there are a number of characters, relationships, and core plot points that remain underdeveloped – without worthwhile payoff. Given that the film runs a mere 88 minutes, it’s clear that Witch Hunters has been significantly trimmed down to keep the pace fast-moving – excising any elements that might slow things down. To Wirkola’s credit, this was probably a smart move, given that there’s only so far a filmmaker can stretch the Hansel and Gretel kill witches premise. In fact, attempts to humanize the pair, explore their relationships with other characters, or explain witch mythology, are easily the least successful pieces of the film – paling in comparison to the entertainment provided by requisite witch hunting sequences.
In his effort to present a hardcore fairy tale story, Wirkola has delivered two of the least likable protagonists in recent memory. Hansel and Gretel are cold and expressionless – not to mention disinterested in nearly every single person around them. Despite competent performances from both Renner and Arterton, the portrayal of their brother and sister relationship is a missed opportunity – as it could have been the one area where the two leads would be able to drop the stoic-faced machismo and have some fun. Sadly, in keeping with the focus of the film, there’s nothing for them to talk about – except for hunting witches. As a result, the dynamic between Hansel and Gretel is thin and muddled.
A few head-scratching edits by the filmmaker – a sensual shot of Gretel’s naked legs stepping over Hansel in their bedroom or a prolonged scene of stilted staring and hugging – could, as it is depicted onscreen, cause moviegoers to mistake the characters’ relationship for a repressed love affair, instead of healthy (albeit stagy) sibling affection. It’s unlikely that Wirkola was actually implying a forbidden romance between the two but the awkwardly drawn scenes are symptomatic of a larger problem – the characters are so buried underneath fighting, cursing, and bleeding that audiences will have little to no idea how they feel about anyone or anything that happens in the film. They hate witches, which is apparent in a brutal and off-putting torture scene where, after capturing a fleeing spellcaster, Hansel straps on brass knuckles to beat information out of their detainee.
Unfortunately, few of the side characters are given an opportunity to help break the proceedings away from Hansel and Gretel’s preference for violence-over-substance. Local want-to-be witch hunter Ben (Thomas Mann) tries to lighten the mood while Mina (Pihla Viitala), a mysterious woman who was nearly burned at the stake, is meant to add emotional gravity but the witch hunters’ reaction to these well-meaning people is so flat (and in certain cases mean-spirited) that the tone rarely makes a successful shift.
In a cast that also includes Peter Stormare and Rainer Bock, Famke Janssen is the only memorable supporting actor. Janssen is uncompromising in her depiction of evil sorceress Muriel and, despite lines of corny exposition and bland dialogue, she’s the one side player with enjoyable flare and actual personality. Edward, a brutish troll who serves the witches, is a worthwhile addition but many moviegoers will be distracted by the stiff mix of practical effects used to bring the character to life.
Nevertheless, amidst a host of missed opportunities, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters succeeds in its primary goal: gory and hyper-stylized action. Wirkola has crafted a diverse mix of entertaining battle sequences – ribbing on traditional witch mythology with some crafty changes to the formula. In combat, Hansel and Gretel (the characters and the film) both come alive – providing a smart combination of super-powered fisticuffs/spell-casting and slick (modern) twists on colonial-era weaponry. As mentioned, the film manages a brisk pace, one action set piece after another with only minor drama beats in between, so moviegoers who can overlook the predictable story and thin personalities will find plenty of crowd-pleasing moments to punctuate the campy experience.
That said, there’s no reason to see the film in 3D or in IMAX. Few shots make use of the increased depth, which is especially surprising given that Wirkola filmed the movie using 3D cameras. A handful of gory moments are slightly heightened in 3D but the majority of onscreen visuals are pretty flat. Not to mention, there’s a lot of frantic camera work during action scenes – meaning that the overall film could be easier to follow, and subsequently more enjoyable, in 2D.
Anyone looking for an interesting twist on the Hansel & Gretel legend will likely be underwhelmed by the storytelling and characters in Witch Hunters. It’s a bland, and at times downright flawed, narrative with flat leads and predictable twists. Yet, the film succeeds in its fundamental goal – to show the humble fairy tale survivors mercilessly burning and beating witches in an over-the-top action-horror adventure. Basically, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is exactly what potential viewers should expect (plus a bit more gore) based on the film’s premise and marketing – whether or not that’s a good thing will be subject to individual taste.
If you’re still on the fence about Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, check out the trailer below:
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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters runs 88 minutes and is Rated R for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language. Now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.