Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
It feels like a dubious decision to reinvent with adolescent boys in mind; you’re ignoring the core market and are unlikely to find one with a group who shy away from “kids’ stuff”. That it’s proved to be a hit shows I don’t know nuffink. Tommy Wirkola is just the latest to spin a new-but-less-than-dazzling twist on such material. He never has his sights higher than metal music, busty maidens and four-letter words so, on that limited level, Hansel & Gretel is a resounding success.
Occasionally he forgets himself, and inserts a genuine element from family fantasy fare; the evil monster that turns good (Edward) is more the sort of thing you’d expect from Labyrinth than a movie desperate to squidge heads into bloody pulp at every opportunity. And Edward’s relationship with Gretel (Gemma Arterton) is the only one in the movie that musters any feeling. Certainly, there isn’t much chemistry between Gretel and her brother (Jeremy Renner). They’re given broad, wisecracking dialogue (none of it very good), coursing with very contemporary swearing in place of wit, but neither has the larger-than-life quality to carry it off. Both are curiously flat. On the one hand Wirkola seems to be pushing for a Sam Raimi vibe (the witch hags look straight out of something he would make), on the other he only has the talent of a Robert Rodriguez. Appropriately, as this most resembles the coarseness and crudity of From Dusk till Dawn and shares a similar fourteen-year-old sensibility. It also lacks the infectious glee of Raimi at his best.
Wirkola furnished the script too (he’s very far from an auteur, though), so the hackery is entirely his fault. He revels in anachronistic weapons and clothing as much as he does language. We don’t really need to hear Hansel and Gretel’s biggest fan shouting “That was awesome!” any more than we want them to stomp about in designer leathers (well, some might…). The super-gadgetry was crap when it festooned Van Helsing; what makes Wirkola think it will be any cooler here?
It’s readily clear from the prologue that the director will be taking an irreverent approach to the material, as soon as Hansel pushes a witch in an oven and asks rhetorically, “Is it hot enough for you now, bitch?” He has the occasional inspired idea; Hansel is diabetic due to all that sugar as a small lad, and his ghastly witches are quite effective on the occasions they leap around on all fours. But his heroes’ mission is no more and no less than the title; they must rid a “shitty little town” of witches with the occasional intrusion of a par-for-the-course mystery from the past to solve. Even if the two are ready made to suffer from childhood traumas it’s no less one-note and predictable as it’s in every bleeding character description these days.
The director commendably puts an emphasis on practical effects over CGI wherever possible. You can also see that he has lots of ideas but not many of them pay off. This really needs to be more cartoonish and less the sort of thing a couple of guys would come up with over a few beers. There’s a chicken joke in there (I maintain that no movie can be all bad if it contains a fowl gag) and a reference to Goldlilocks and the Three Bears and it’s vaguely amusing that the crones sound a bit like Predators.
But generally, Wirkola just wants to copy from better pictures. It seems awfully familiar when we break into a title sequence that brings the exploits of H&G up to date because it is; everyone’s doing it lately. He keeps the picture lively (although he doesn’t quite seem to know how to frame the action in 2:35:1), but the problem is his tale has no traction. It doesn’t take long for Peter Stormare to become a deranged nutter; he’s befuddled by a script that can do very little with him, so he turns into a would-be rapist. He fared much better with his OTT turn in Terry Gilliam’s take on fairy tales, the problematic The Brothers Grimm (which at least dazzles fitfully).
Matthew Hopkins would probably be proud of a movie that takes such unbridled glee in slaughtering witches in a variety of high impact fashions. There’s an unpleasant undercurrent of violence against women throughout; it’s just meant to be okay because they’re hideously ugly (and because they aren’t even human, we’re told). By the time Wirkola introduces a white witch to redress the balance, it’s too late. And then he decides to put Gretel through the wringer in a queasy sequence that contrasts with what has generally been a knockabout experience. He has the temperance to cut away when a child is about to meet a nasty fate but seems to revel in the mistreatment of women. Famke Janssen seizes her part like her career depends on it, but the material doesn’t allow her to become so hissable that you’re rooting for her.
Wirkola’s movie was a surprise hit, dumped in dead-end January but going on to make more than $200m worldwide. Inevitably, a sequel has been announced. There’s always the danger that the audience feels they were hoodwinked into seeing something unsuspectingly and vow to give any follow-ups a wide berth. This is an unlikely franchise starter, not because it’s terrible but because it’s so derivative.