‘Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” a silly, embarrassing experience
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Written by Tommy Wirkola
A film in which the fairy-tale characters Hansel and Gretel, after their famous encounter with a nasty witch in an alluring candy-coated house, decide to take arms against all witches in the world sounds about right for a SyFy movie of the week. That it has been given the feature-film treatment and a dangerously misleading air of legitimacy through the presence of leading man Jeremy Renner is frustrating, especially because Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is exactly as dumb as its title suggests. Unlike last year’s supernatural movie with an inherently silly premise, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Hansel and Gretel doesn’t consistently take itself too seriously, but it also has an unfortunately goofy script, leaden direction, and poor effects, adding up to an unpleasant experience.
Renner and Gemma Arterton play Hansel and Gretel, who have become the most famous and feared witch hunters in the land years after the story we’re all familiar with. (Hansel and Gretel is set in Germany, but both speak with American accents, as do some of the other characters, because, well, hey, look over there!) They come to the small town of Augsburg, finding that a number of children have been kidnapped by Muriel (Famke Janssen), a witch who holds a secret to the title characters’ past and wants to secure a potion that will make witches immune to fire. The shoestring plot is mostly an excuse for Renner and Arterton to grab their modernized weapons—don’t ask how they got these weapons, of course—and blow holes in any witch they come across.
Writer-director Tommy Wirkola, at times, seems aware of how silly this story is some of the time. Still, too much of this movie is playing it straight, making it so Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has some good laughs, all of which appear to be unintentional. And some of the flourishes—such as Hansel being diabetic as an adult, because, see, he ate all that candy in the witch’s house when he was a kid! Get it?—are too clever by half, as if Wirkola was so proud of thinking of these ideas that he never decided to develop them any further. Frankly, the story moves so quickly, with an 88-minute length, and some developments are explained through voiceover conversations that there may be scenes on the cutting room floor. Of course, that may be the true blessing of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Jeremy Renner is patently uncomfortable as Hansel, looking like he’s counting down the seconds until he can cash his check or until he can call his agent to verify that, yes, this is the movie he signed up for. Hansel is meant to be the more laconic, witty of the two leads, and though Renner can be a charming presence, the script gives him the dullest possible comedy to work with. Arterton is, like Renner, nice enough to look at but fairly bland. Also, her American accent frequently makes her sound like she’s doing a riff on a Valley Girl accent, raising the question of why, exactly, these characters talk like they were jettisoned in from 2013. (Words like “cool” and “awesome” make cameo appearances in this film.) Janssen gets a thankless antagonist role, her only form of personality manifesting in her line delivery, as if she decided to emulate Christopher Walken, though only by pausing…when she spoke…at random spots in her…dialogue.
What’s left to glom onto, then, is the action, almost all of which is scattered and messy. It doesn’t help matters that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has a decidedly grubby, dirty, and grimy look to each scene, but Wirkola composes his action sequences so poorly, the camera so jittery it doesn’t even know where to point, content sometimes to pan around the grass of a forest just because. Perhaps the smartest move is to double down on the film’s R rating with buckets of outrageous guts and gore, yet even here, the film disappoints because of a lack of consistency. One scene where a group of loutish men meet a particularly nasty end, in broad daylight, is almost excessively disgusting, whereas a climactic battle between witches and our heroes, armed with a machine gun (kind of), seems strangely bloodless.
You would not be totally incorrect to hope that maybe, just maybe, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a cheeky, self-aware lark of a film, especially considering that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay produced it (yes, really). And there are a few moments, in the first 30 minutes particularly, where it looks like the film will display a juvenile sense of humor, but a sense of humor nonetheless. Make no mistake: this film is self-aware to a degree. However, its self-awareness serves to destroy it, because the people who made this movie seem to know how embarrassingly silly it is, in the hopes that if the movie is short enough and moves quickly enough, we’ll all forget we ever saw it or that people like Jeremy Renner were involved in its production. All of us should be so lucky.
— Josh Spiegel