Mo witches, mo problems. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013) was announced right around the time that the two Seth Grahame-Smith novels, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies began its development process and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012) was in trailers. Then the latter adaptation was completely destroyed by critics and soured expectations for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (though completely unrelated to the Grahame-Smith adaptations). I was intrigued by the trailer but was only able to catch it just recently with the recently released Blu-Ray/3D/DVD set. Was this a grand new take on the classic tale we all kind of know and tolerate or was it as silly as Dusk ’til Dawn (1997) with a Grimm veneer.
Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) were abandoned in the woods as children. Left to their own devices, they came across a candy house. They go inside and find a gruesome witch who they burn in an oven after she force-feeds Hansel into Type II Diabetes. Fast forward and the siblings have become witch hunters that go town to town killing witches with their curiously anachronistic weapons and collecting bounties. They go to Augsburg on invitation of the mayor (Rainer Bock) as some evil has descended and the children are disappearing. When they arrive, the Sheriff (Peter Stormare) is scapegoating a young woman, Mina (Pihla Viitala), as a witch (but she doesn’t show the signs of a witch). Come to find out, Muriel (Famke Janssen), a grandwitch, has a plan to make all witches fireproof, leaving Hansel and Gretel the only pair to save the town.
The fundamental problem with the movie is that its reach exceeded its grasp by a considerable margin with respect to its vision. The final scene plays out a very brief, highly choreographed witch execution with slow motion and stylized graphics and that’s probably what Wirkola wanted the entire film to be. It isn’t. Instead, the movie is a limited story drawn out over an hour and a half with a smattering of decidedly telegraphed revelations and a number of spatially confusing fight sequences. The climactic fight scene takes place, predominantly, in a poorly lit hovel. And everything, everything, moves at a break-neck pace without taking advantage of some decent CGI. If they’d slowed it down, expanded the witch-hunter beginnings beyond a newsposter montage to allow for some character development, they might have had a decent movie on their hands.
From the trailers, I thought it might have been a good movie. It looked as though it might have been a self-aware satire of the fantasy and action genres. The witch-killing shotguns presaged this as did the presence of Jeremy Renner who does not have an earnest face in his repertoire. He was a perfect pick for what I thought the movie was going to be. And yet, this too was left behind in the hopes of being disgusting in the “Aw, cool” mode of pleasing disturbed adolescents. If this was the aim, their aim was poor as they put enough swearing and gore in the movie to justify its R rating twice over. That swearing, and R rating, might have excused mature (as in grown-up) themes and storytelling. Nope. Then they had this really cool troll, Edward (Derek Mears/Robin Atkin Downes), that pleased me to no end with the design and Ludo-esque possibilities. So much potential here, and all wasted to create this forgettable gross-out mediocrity. And the mythology! Oh God, why the incessant creation of franchise mythology? There has yet to be a movie where magic is done well outside of the Harry Potter series (which rely on books).
It would have been cool if Joss Whedon had written/directed it. Everything about it is up his alley. Instead, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, the Norwegian creator of the Nazi-zombie film Dead Snow (2009). Expecting satire from someone who makes B-movies on purpose was purest ignorance on my part. I apologize unreservedly to my two-hour younger self. The performances are basically as weak as the typically ludicrous dialogue. It’s a super pedestrian score by Atli Örvarsson (produced by Hans Zimmer) in what may be the only film I’ve ever had the thought “gosh, the sound mixing is terrible in this movie.”
They really like busting people’s heads. If that’s your kind of humor, boy have I got a film for you.