Mark Reviews Movies

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tommy Wirkola

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Thomas Mann, Peter Stormare

MPAA Rating: R (for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language)

Running Time: 1:28

Release Date: 1/25/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 28, 2013

The tonal dissonance between the script and the execution of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is impossible to overlook. The screenplay, which imagines the titular sibling duo after their infamous encounter with a witch in a house made of sugary delights, never takes itself too seriously. From the anachronistic use of naughty language (Then again, is there even a time period for this story other than "Once upon a time?") to the strange (the appearance of any given witch) and horrific (a man exploding into a pile of blood and worm) sights undermined by a throwaway one-liner ("I hate that one," one character says of the latter example), it's clear this is a comedy.

Director Tommy Wirkola's focus on the material is aimed at the more serious side of things, from the always in-motion action sequences (run, shoot, dodge, run some more, shoot a lot more, etc.) to the tone of impending doom that goes with the central plot. One would suspect an unfortunate misinterpretation on Wirkola's part, if not for one gaping problem with that theory: Wirkola wrote the screenplay.

At this point, we are left with a few possible hypotheses for the odd disconnect (outside pressure usually being the safest one), but such rampant speculation is useless. All we have (and, for that matter, all a critic can and should consider) is the movie at hand, and from that, the only logical conclusion is to believe some uncertainty or insecurity on the writer/director's part as to what the movie is. The story and the action sequences tell us one thing, while flashes of humor and actors who play it coolly unaffected tell us another. Perhaps the explanation is as simple as Wirkola arriving at a premise and having mixed feelings on how to approach it. The result—no matter what the reason—is a clever setup undercut by repetitive, sometimes jumbled action and comedy that isn't that amusing in the first place.

The movie's strongest section is its prologue, which replays the story of two children who are left alone in the woods to fend for themselves with a truly devious and ominous atmosphere. The house made of candy is a bright, colorful oasis in the crushing darkness of the woods (though not as bright and far too dark in 3-D); the witch is a ghastly sight as she emerges from the shadows of her hovel (While there is clearly some computer-generated enhancement to the implementation of the witches in the movie, the foundation of traditional makeup effects is key to its success). The fate we know befalls the witch, and an opening-credit montage of Gutenberg-style news clippings and storybook drawings reveals how the brother and sister pairing become the most famous witch hunters in the world.

Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel's (Gemma Arterton) newest gig involves a string of children abductions in a small town. The sheriff (Peter Stormare) shares Hansel's scorched-earth philosophy of witches ("Burn them all"), while the mayor (Rainer Block), who hires the duo, believes like Gretel that a certain level of evidence is necessary before going to such extremes. Gretel's view wins out in the movie's first post-credit scene, in which she and her brother save a woman named Mina (Pihla Viitala), who becomes something of a half-hearted love interest for Hansel, from the sheriff's ways.

The pair is defined by its tools. They possess an arsenal of witch-hunting tools, including a rapid-fire shotgun and an automatic crossbow. As the two encounter their prey—led by the Grand Dark Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), whose plan is to use a once-in-a-generation eclipse to make her horde immune to fire—in the forest, there's a lot of firing of those weapons, rolling around on the ground, jumping out of the way, and, at one point, being dragged by a witch's "broomstick" (here, any branch will do). Wirkola cuts the sequences with the finesse of machete, and they quickly become monotonous.

Some of the smaller details start to elaborate—but never fully follow through on—an intriguing personality for these characters and the world they inhabit. Hansel is hindered by a case of "sugar poisoning" from his childhood ordeal, meaning that he must give himself an injection every so often (It's forgotten about until the climactic battle when it's necessary for a brief, predictable amount of tension). A troll named Edward (voice of Robin Atkin Downes) lives a miserable, weary life in service of witches, and although computer effects are used to bring about the creature's participation in fights (including one that is particularly blood-soaked), it's mostly brought to life through some effective animatronic work.

The little bit of mythology—including why the siblings are immune to dark magic and the concept of different types of witches—feels like an afterthought, and when it does come into play, it's only for the benefit of more tedious action (Shortly after revealing an alternate form of magic, the characters use it on their weapons). Even with self-appointed pass to stretch its imagination, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters falls back on a conventional battles in the light of a blood-red moon and—whether there's any doubt—"where it all began."

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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