Just about the only thing that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has going for it aside from a cast full of recognizable and pretty faces is that it’s short. It’s an exhausting eighty-eight minutes of relentlessly brutal fight scenes, bloody gore splattering in all directions, and anachronistic profanities used in place of genuine cleverness and humor. But it could have been worse.
It could have been a hundred and eighty-eight minutes of all that senseless mayhem.
Jeremy Renner (Marvel’s The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy) and Gemma Arterton (Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans) star as the titular brother and sister from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, all grown up and armed to the teeth with stylized shotguns, crossbows, and all sorts of other weapons that look really out of place in a setting that otherwise looks like 17th Century Germany. You see, after the little incident with the house made of gingerbread and candy in the woods and the witch that lived there (which we see in the film’s opening minutes), Hansel and Gretel discovered that their calling was to save children endangered by evil witches everywhere, and they spend the next twenty or so years making a name for themselves as invincible witch hunters. They’re driven by rage as much as by a desire to help children — a witch almost ate them, after all, so why not exact a little revenge on all the rest of them?
Their life’s work brings them to a tiny, dirty hovel of a village called Augsburg, where the Mayor hires them to stop a “witch plague” which has resulted in many of the village’s children disappearing. Soon after they take up the challenge, the siblings find themselves up against a “grand witch” named Muriel (Famke Janssen), who along with her coven are more powerful than anything the hunters have ever faced. Muriel has plans for all those abducted children and for Hansel and Gretel, too, because she knew they would come, and she needs them to complete her scheme, and also because there simply can’t be coincidences in stories like this, right? Add to that threat a fanatic witch-hating sheriff (Peter Stormare) and a mysterious resident of the village who takes a shine to Hansel and may or may not be a witch herself (Finnish actress Pihla Viitala), and you get a tale entirely devoid of surprise and suspense. Even the story’s “twists” are predictable. That in itself might be forgivable had the rest of the film not been such an inconsistent mess.
Norwegian writer/director Tommy Wirkola, who gained some notoriety in 2009 for his Nazi-Zombie horror comedy Dead Snow, seems more interested in filling his film with as many anachronisms and verbal profanities as possible rather than telling a compelling adventure story. Liberal usage of the F-word in Hansel and Gretel’s dialogue is pretty much all that accounts for humor in the bare bones script, which really just serves to provide a few minutes respite here and there between the fights, the gunplay, the gore, and the explosions. There’s never any attempt at all to explain why the residents of the village all seem to look and sound like provincial German hamlet-types, while our hero and heroine speak with distinctly American accents and carry pump-action shotguns and gatling guns. If it took itself a little less seriously, it might be excused as deliberate camp, along the lines of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, but there’s no palpable “wink” at the audience anywhere to be found. Instead, you get the feeling that Wirkola actually looked at all this carnage on the page and in front of the camera and thought it was cool. You can almost hear him saying to himself, “Whoa, that’s awesome!” with every reveal of a bigger gun or a gorier bodily explosion. Indeed, the sheer volume of blood and guts deserves special mention here. It might be a fun exercise to time how much time separates each time a head or other body part gets blown apart or ripped off. It could even be a drinking game – every time a character in the movie blows up in a shower of blood and entrails, take a shot. Make sure to only try that one at home, though.
As for the cast acting out all this mayhem, the product is decidedly mixed. In her first outing as a full-on action heroine rather than a damsel-in-distress or romantic sidekick, Arterton holds her own on screen and attacks her physical scenes with a great deal of gusto. Forcing her to adopt an American accent (she’s British) actually detracts from her efforts here – she might have made the material sound more credible had she done it in her native accent. It wouldn’t have matched up with Renner’s delivery, of course, but clearly consistency or logic were not a priority for these filmmakers. As for Renner himself, he’s more or less in Avengers-Hawkeye mode here; in fact, had they let Hansel be the crossbow-bearing action figure here rather than Gretel, Renner’s work in the two films might be indistinguishable.
The one you might actually feel sorry for here is Famke Janssen. As Muriel, Janssen finally gets a chance to play a villain with all the relish she put into Xenia Onatopp in the James Bond film Goldeneye almost a decade ago. For the most part, that performance winds up buried under cheap-looking effects and gobs of unnecessary make-up. After all, truly terrifying evil doesn’t have to be outwardly ugly, and the few times you see Janssen on-screen looking human, the twinkle in her eye and the wicked in her grin is as bone-chilling than any CGI you might see digitally created around her. Alas, that kind of wisdom and insight was seemingly outside of the scope and ambition of Wirkola and his team.
Bottom line: if you want blood, guts, guns and gore with some actual humor and creativity, go see Schwarzenegger’s The Last Stand, which came out last week and undeservedly bombed, and avoid Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters like you might … well, like you might a gingerbread house in the woods.
Score: 1.5 out of 5
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Starring Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare. Written and Directed by Tommy Wirkola.
Running Time: 88 minutes
Rated R for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language.