By Tim Posada, 1/31/2013
January is that special month where films go to die. But some surefire duds find a way to rise above when the box office pickings are slim. With that, I give you “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”, a straight-to-video film best suited for the Syfy Channel’s Saturday evening time slot that somehow made its way to a theatre near you. And it stars Jeremy Renner, two-time Oscar nominee and A-list favorite who recently appeared in “The Avengers” and “The Bourne Legacy”. What was he thinking? “Hansel and Gretel” is every bit as stupid as its concept suggests, but it still beats plenty of far worse B-movies, and some choice A-ones too.
Remember that classic tale of “Hansel and Gretel”? Siblings lost in the woods stumble upon a candy house owned by a witch who enjoys child-filled pastries; but nobody puts these breadcrumb kids in a corner as they make that witch their … dinner instead. That’s the first five minutes. What follows is (I assume) the first installment of the all-grown-up Hans/Gret adventures. But rather than waste their money on therapy trying to figure out why mom and dad abandoned them or how to emotionally recover from a witch attack, they become the Dog the Bounty Hunters of the supernatural world. Sure, there’s more of a plotline in here somewhere, but it’s far less interesting than the premise.
The brother/sister, witch-killing duo don’t really exist in the midst of a period drama. I doubt they used the F-word as much –– or most modern-day vernacular for that matter. And do machine guns exist? Nope, but automatic crossbows and Hansel’s shotgun apparently do, along with other assorted gadgets best suited for a pre-colonial James Bond. Far from the dark tone of a Grimm story, “Hansel and Gretel” is a steampunk fairy tale for the comic book generation. At least that’s the sales pitch. The actual audience is probably far less “fannish” than you’d expect (it’s January and people get bored and desperate when no better films premiere).
Meet Hansel (Renner), a lovable witch hunter who’s a bit aloof when it comes to the many women he attracts. But at least he’s got a good reason. Back in that candy house, the evil witch made him eat so much candy that he must take an insulin shot every couple hours (hmmm, I wonder what that could be). As for Gretel (Gemma Arterton), she’s no damsel, and don’t bother trying to hook her up with some dreamy guy. She’s the tough one, completely focused on the mission. Leave the coupling to Hansel and a sexy local, Mina (Pihla Viitala), accused of witchery.
“Hansel and Gretel” is especially disappointing, as it’s Norwegian writer and director Tommy Wirkola’s first English-language film. In 2009, he wrote/directed the breakout cult hit, “Dead Snow”, a Nazi-zombie horror comedy (easily one of the best zombie films to date). Clearly, Wirkola enjoys merging unlikely elements, whether it’s horror and comedy or the grotesque and camp, but here the final product is more subpar than quirky.
Just like “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” (I love the diversity of film names) isn’t terrible because of its absurd concept (I will always root for anything off the wall) but for a lack of narrative follow through. It isn’t obscure enough, dissolving into bland clichés by film’s end. The humor falls flat and the dialogue replaces banter with tired regurgitation and foul language. Whenever an outlandish film like this premieres, I develop more respect for “300” and “Wanted”, two stylized films that made the over-the-top look … quite frankly, just awesome. But their predecessors are too tame and place too little emphasis on performance, like Renner, who all but copies Jason Statham in one of his many bland and predictably similar roles.
I’d like to say this is a completely awful film, but I’ve seen worse. As far as raunchy actioners go, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” isn’t boring and rarely reaches the obnoxious heights of, say, any “Transformers” installment. At least it’s well paced with decent special effects (though the idea of viewing this one in HD sounds even more horrifying than any witch attack). More than anything, it’s just underwhelming –– a lost opportunity to create something imaginative and fun. Instead, it’s that special kind of movie that goes best with beer before liquor, followed by a secret fight club. First rule of “Hansel and Gretel”: don’t take it seriously.