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Review: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Directed by: Tommy Wirkola

Premise: A revision of the classic tale. As children, siblings Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) survive an attack by a witch. The pair grows up to become bounty hunters, tracking and killing witches.

What Works: There has recently been a trend of revised fairy tales in which classic stories and characters are given a contemporary twist in movies like Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman, and now Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. This film draws on the period horror pictures of the 1960s such as the movies of Hammer Films and Roger Corman’s many adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s literature, and updates it for an audience raised on video games. That works well enough and when the movie is in full action mode it is fun in an absurd way. Nothing about Hansel & Gretel is more than average but the speed and energy of the movie works in its favor. Hansel & Gretel is also helped by its sense of humor. Unlike Red Riding Hood and Snow White and the Huntsman, this film does not take itself too seriously and it is enjoyable as a lighthearted, spectacle-driven action adventure. Where Hansel and Gretel is most impressive is in its special effects. The picture has an effective combination of practical effects and computer generated imagery and the filmmakers show a good sense for which techniques to employ. Especially notable is a troll, played by Derek Mears, who is rendered through a mix of mechanical and digital elements and he is the most sympathetic character in the entire movie.

What Doesn’t: Hansel & Gretel is an example of what is often called a “high concept” movie, meaning that the idea of the film is more important than the characters or the narrative. That is certainly the case here as the filmmakers of Hansel & Gretel are entirely dependent on special effects to sustain their movie. Even though the film runs a scant eighty-eight minutes the dearth of a coherent story is very apparent and the concept wears thin halfway through. The action scenes, although frequent and furious, are edited very sloppily with a lot of gaps in continuity. The filmmakers attempt to give this collection of stunts and set pieces a narrative shape by exploring the backstory of Hansel and Gretel but the movie’s storytelling logic is really strained. An attempt is made in the conclusion to connect the ending with the beginning but it does not make much sense and ends up creating many other story problems. Hansel & Gretel also has a lot of flaws as a fantasy. The movie is a fairytale, so the filmmakers are afforded a lot of latitude but the story world is terribly inconsistent. Hansel & Gretel is set in a rustic village resembling Europe in the late Middle Ages but the weapons and other technology carried by the characters are far advanced including machine guns and mechanical crossbows. There is also a question of where they get all of this weaponry; neither Hansel nor Gretel have a workshop or even a horse to carry all this stuff but somehow they have an entire arsenal available to them upon arrival in the village. Hansel & Gretel is also troubling in its regard for women. To their credit, the filmmakers do acknowledge a greater complexity in the moral character of witches but the movie is troubling in the way all women – including Gretel—are seen and regarded by the male characters and by the movie itself. Hansel & Gretel is not an overtly misogynistic movie—this isn’t Playing for Keeps or the 2006 version of The Wicker Man—but it is hard to get around the fact that the dominant image of the film is of the heroes—usually Hansel—shooting, impaling, decapitating, and otherwise executing women. This is further problematic when the movie is seen in the historical context of the witch hunts of the Middle Ages in which thousands of innocent women were killed. That may be giving Hansel & Gretel too much credit but nevertheless there is a creepy vibe about this film that has nothing to do with trolls or witches.

Bottom Line: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is silly and frequently sloppy. It is somewhat entertaining but the filmmakers are so clumsy in their moviemaking and storytelling that it is a disappointing film.

Episode: #425 (February 3, 2013)