Considering a witch nearly baked them in an oven and ate them, it makes sense that Hansel and Gretel would grow up to be witch hunters. Ok, maybe not quite, but it’s at least more reasonable than Abraham Lincoln being a vampire hunter.
With that perspective, there’s a bit more logic in place backing “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” but the film might as well be “Barack Obama: Dragon Slayer” based on how director and co-writer Tommy Wirkola fails to take advantage of this workable premise.
Wirkola, the Norwegian filmmaker who made the Nazi zombie horror film “Dead Snow,” tries to utilize the same irreverence and unserious tone that earned that film some critical recognition, but the sheer absurdity of undead Nazis translates better than some ambiguously 19th Century supernatural witch hunt.
After their parents abandoned them in the woods as children, Hansel and Gretel escaped the clutches of a witch and presumably (we don’t see the epiphany happen) dedicate their lives to being witch-hunting orphans who travel all over the world killing and burning the ugly hags. When they’re hired to investigate a series of nearly a dozen child kidnappings, they uncover some secrets about their past.
It’s hard to tell if Wirkola and co-writer D.W. Harper were trying at all to make “Hansel & Gretel” a slick, cool action movie or if they wanted it to play as an exercise in absurdity. Either way, talented stars Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton look completely out of place in the title roles. It’s uncomfortable to see them acting this poorly, to the point where the film might actually have been better if two no-names from one of those straight-to-DVD blockbuster knockoffs had been cast instead.
Wirkola clearly strives to make the movie gleefully violent and hilarious, but that tone and approach only works when you can buy into the more fundamental parts of a film and “Hansel & Gretel” is a sloppy smorgasbord of action, ‘80s fantasy, gore and steampunk tied together by the thinnest of story lines.
Every element of the plot gets the most basic, glossed-over treatment based on the assumption that the audience will find witch-hunting sufficiently entertaining. The combat sequences themselves have an amusing edge, with Hansel and Gretel chasing after feral witches and using all manner of weaponry to blow them out of the sky, but it purports to be much cooler than it actually is with gratuitous swearing and denigrating one-liners. Hansel and Gretel, for example, make jokes at the expense of other characters, but in actuality they’re just as culpable.
It starts with how completely one-dimensional our heroes are. Hansel and Gretel possess no qualities other than badass and snide. Hansel is a diabetic thanks to the witch who force-fed him candy as a child, but while that’s clever, it doesn’t count for character, and neither do Gretel’s nightmares about what really happened to them as children. Both amount to insignificant plot devices. There’s no exploration of the brother-sister dynamic or any kind of internal or interpersonal conflict. These are not the hallmarks of “serious” films, but rather essentials to storytelling, so the movie is not being avante-garde by scrapping them.
Famke Janssen plays Muriel, the evil witch with the grand plan. She’s supposed be formidable and feisty, which she is in a physical sense, but her character’s sole motivation is her plan — to make witches impervious to fire — so Janssen is left with nothing to do except ham it up in every scene. You can imagine that doesn’t leave much for veteran Peter Stormare as the town sheriff or Thomas Mann as an obsessed fan of Hansel and Gretel’s.
Then there’s Edward. Edward is an ogre who looks like a cross between and Richard Kind and the dad from the ‘90s TV show “Dinosaurs,” who fits into the story the same exact way Sloth factors into “Goonies.” He’s either embodies the best or the worst the movie, depending on how you feel about the rest of it.
“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is carnal, surface filmmaking — a cake made entirely of frosting. Sure, it might be decent frosting, but unless you’re a frosting junkie it’s essentially inedible. People who like that kind of glitzy display might spoon it up in all its artificiality and appreciate its flippant attitude, but most audiences will be too self-respecting to indulge.
Peppered throughout this attempt at carefree supernatural action-adventure are cliches at every level from the dialogue to the use of narration and the score. It’s clear the movie is trying to follow a formula and utilize techniques that have proven successful in the past, but you just can’t ignore the essentials like “Hansel & Gretel,” as doing so completely exposes the film for the action-packed genre film fraud that it is when it attempts to employ those techniques but falls flat.
If somehow you can fall under “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’” spell, you might just be enchanted enough to enjoy the film in its short run time given how it sticks to its guns, but don’t count on being so easily beguiled.
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Written by Tommy Wirkola, D.W. Harper
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Thomas Mann