A Grim Fairy Tale, by Scott Nye
Look, I don’t have to tell you that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is bad. Everybody knows Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is bad. You can tell just about right away that you’re in the presence of shit. The jokes are awful, the design is something even Tim Burton would find hackneyed, there’s nothing coherent about the performances (not even their separateness), and the action ranges from “Okay, that happened” to “Okay, THAT happened.” However, slight as this praise may be, I’d take ten of these over another Alice in Wonderland (2010), Snow White and the Huntsman, or The Amazing Spider-Man, or even another Thor (largely because Hansel & Gretel is much, much shorter), and the collective decision that THIS should be the derivative piece of branded dreck that we should all pile on seems to be the result more of circumstance than of actual product.
For starters, Hansel & Gretel doesn’t dwell too much in the bullshit of those (and many, many, many other) more bloated sea vessels. After a brief recap of the well-known Brothers Grimm tale upon which the film is “based” (the role of the parents is changed significantly), the film takes a sharp departure. Instead of going back to live with their parents (no reason for this is given), our young protagonists decide instead to kill every witch in sight. Needing to provide for themselves (okay, I’m filling in some of this myself), they decide to make this their profession, and by the time we next meet them (now grown up into Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton), they are hired by the mayor of a small village to deal with their witch problem, who eventually takes the too-hot-for-gross-makeup form of Famke Janssen. Filling in the gaps are Peter Stormare as the town sheriff who’d rather just burn anyone suspected of witchcraft, his prone-to-stripping prime suspect (Pihla Viitala), a giant troll named Edward, and various other blank slates put in place to explode into huge piles of blood (special effects nerds should know that the troll, and most of the film’s effects, were done practically, on set, with makeup and costumes).
The film eventually gets around to reveling in its more exploitative elements, shy as it is about them at first – it is, for example, a little dishonest to have a woman strip naked for the protagonist and camera (and viewing audience) only to have said protagonist feel obliged to look away. When it finally succumbs to its bloodbath nature in the climactic battle, the film is at its best and most inventive, throwing all manner of witches, many of whom we’ve not met and all of whom have differing powers and abilities, at our protagonists in full force. And when you have a good witch with a battery machine gun (which she has blessed) gunning down the unholy competition while Gemma Arterton swings chains into witches’ faces, it’s a sort of rarified territory of the truly dumbest variety.
Don’t get me wrong, you do have to trudge through a fair amount of talk surrounding spells, counterspells, legends, superstitions, and even diabetes (more in a second) to get there. It’s just that there’s so much less of that expositional unloading we’ve come to expect. We don’t come to these films for their damned mythology – we come to watch a troll stomp some guy’s face to paste. And while that’s not a terribly noble endeavor, I’d much rather see a film just be honest about its mission than couch everything in sub-sub-philosophy in an attempt to turn everything into The Lord of the Rings. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters lacks the needed perspective to place its rampant, amoral violence into some sort of subversive glee (even the aforementioned headstomp feels obligatory), but it at least benefits from the economy of excision. At 87 minutes, they just don’t have the time for bloody violence AND superfluous exposition. And while they really should have emphasized its extremely casual winking tone in the ensuing time, it at least isn’t terribly wasteful of it.
The film’s relationship with the modern era (as opposed to that in which is supposedly takes place) is a little bit odd. Hansel and Gretel seem like time travelers who brought back a limited amount of modern technology (and most of modern language) that they then assembled into somewhat-operative weaponry and gadgets (Hansel has a “watch” that lets him know when to take his insulin – what?) that is nevertheless far more advanced than what is possessed by anyone with whom they come in contact. Like every other gun in this film is one of those two-shots-and-you’re-out Lincoln shooters, and Hansel comes rolling in with this massive arsenal. It’s not that this decision is wrong in and of itself, just that the film would have benefitted greatly from being totally faithful to an assigned era or, even better, more overtly anachronistic. They’re almost in Army of Darkness territory, but lack the stones to commit. Or be funny. Or more than moderately entertaining. Renner and Arterton aren’t too handy with a one-liner, never mind a genuine comedic beat, and Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s names in the credits (as Executive Producers) should not be taken as a promise that their director, Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) shares their sensibilities.
Still, if one feels one must suffer these lowest-common-denominator films for whatever self-imposed sentence we’ve deemed ourselves fit to serve, trust me – go with the shorter ones. They won’t waste your time building characters that serve the most facile of purposes, they still deliver the kind of mediocre action scenes you’d expect, they aren’t overly consumed with building a mythology that will serve a sequel that may never come to be, and from time to time, they show a spark of personality. And if nothing else, at least you can use the time left over to watch three Looney Tunes, an episode of Happy Endings, or a silent comedy short. Now that’s entertainment.