Guest Movie Review: Hansel & Gretel
Parodies have existed for as long as there’s been popular art to emulate. In film alone, there have been dozens of greats, from Airplane to The Naked Gun to Space Balls, that make fun of a myriad of story types. But while movies have enjoyed these for decades, a new form of parody has made itself popular on the literature front. 2009 saw the beginning of the Supernatural Classic, with such titles as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter climbing the bestseller charts with ease. Naturally, when something works in book form, it is quickly translated to the big screen; just last year we saw Abraham Lincoln make that transition, showcasing flashy visuals and R-rated gore. But while Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is similar in theme and feel to those before it, it has one slight difference from its predecessors: there isn’t a Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters book out there. This was a completely original idea from the mind of its director and definitely benefits from the recent popularity of such approaches.
Like the original tale on which it is based, Hansel & Gretel begins with the young siblings abandoned in the forest by their parents. An encounter with a gingerbread house and their unlikely defeat of a child-eating Witch gives the pair an insight into their talents and strengths, and of course they ultimately survive and escape. But in the movie, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) become badass witch killers, masters of hunting, disarming and killing monsters with homemade weapons and a natural resistance to magic. When they come upon a small settlement that has seen its children stolen by witches at a positively greedy rate, the pair discovers that they might be in a bit over their heads. It’s a good thing they have big guns.
If there’s one good thing to say about Hansel & Gretel (and there’s actually more than you would think), it’s that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Considering the fact that Wirkola’s biggest movie to date is his 2009 Norwegian Nazi-zombie cult classic Dead Snow, that’s just to be expected. Like many young directors, Wirkola is a fan of the wry quip, the clever twist and the bloody wound, all of which make appearances on several occasions throughout the hour and a half that you’ll be spending in the theater. There’s something to be said for a film being so ridiculous that it just wants to be entertaining, instead of attempting to push some convoluted message. You’re not watching this for a profound examination of man’s inhumanity to inhumans; you’re here to watch action-y feats, anachronistic weaponry (including rapid-fire crossbows) and conventional six-shooters, villains expounding their dastardly deeds and heroes blowing up monsters.
Of course, there is a downside to this; expectations generally have to be lowered dramatically. Wirkola isn’t a very mature director, and it shows in the script he co-wrote with Dante Harper. When the plot doesn’t expressly follow Hansel and Gretel perfecting their craft, it wanders all over the place. On the one hand, it’s amusing seeing the types of situations the pair find themselves in (their sibling sniping at each other is particularly well done). On the other hand, it’s obvious that Wirkola didn’t have a focus in mind and just started adding window dressing. For instance, in a nod to the original tale, Hansel suffers from a life-threatening disease due to the candy the witch forced him to eat as a child (it’s never explicitly called diabetes, but the implication is there). As a result he must take an injection on a regular schedule or else risk debilitation and death. That’s fine, but that minor plot point only makes itself known during the initial exposition and in one silly, climactic scene. That’s just one example, but the script is full of irregularities that a bit of polishing would have smoothed out. You also can’t help but feel that post-production was full of re-edits, since many scenes are lacking in depth and context. This is especially true in the third act, in which the director is desperately trying to reach some kind of conclusion. Finally, the spotty dialogue means that Wirkola’s not getting the best he can from his actors. There’s a seriously talented cast here, with Renner and Arterton backed up by Peter Stormare, Thomas Mann and newcomer Phila Viitala. Famke Janssen even returns to form after a dreadful turn in Taken 2 to play a wonderfully campy villainess. But the script’s shortcomings prevent us from seeing the best these people have to offer, especially considering Renner’s recent ascent to stardom in The Town, The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy. It’s an opportunity you don’t squander lightly, unless apparently you’re the makers of Hansel & Gretel.
The director does attempt to appease with some wonderful special effects, and he generally succeeds. Most of the effects used in Hansel & Gretel are well-done practical effects and not CGI, and you can tell that this is Wirkola in his element. Though some establishing shots of the forest look like they were cribbed from a Twilight feature (that’s definitely not a compliment), he balances it with a better-than-average eye for directing action, fearlessness when it comes to gratuitous bloodshed, and quite excellent creature design and implementation. The witch designs are delightfully varied, and a lot of work obviously went into making each one unique and in infusing them with personality. It’s only when the movie implements the CGI and 3D elements that the special effects feel uneven, overstretched. But even the weak moments can be appreciated for their campiness. As a final touch, the soundtrack is quite a treat, with Hans Zimmerman-inspired music by Icelandic composer Atli Orvarsson coming together nicely and helping move things along. This movie might have its problems, but Orvarsson is now officially a name to watch.
As American debuts go, Hansel & Gretel:Witch Hunters could naturally have been a lot better. While there’s a campy, entertaining, rollicking good time in it, there’s also jarringly uneven editing, a weak script, and some pretty unimaginative development. The film could have taken some advice from its literary brethren, which are chock full of references to their source materials and revel in their alternate existences. If you keep your expectations absurdly low, aren’t that offended by blood (this movie earnsit’s “R” rating) and are don’t want to use your brain, you can probably still enjoy Hansel & Gretel on some level. Expect anything more, and you’re bound to be disappointed. But then again, when the movie you’re going to see is Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, what exactly are you expecting?
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and film enthusiast living in Boston. His other movie reviews can be found at Hello, Mr. Anderson… you know, just in case you’re interested.