The utterly joyless and thoroughly vapid Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters easily is the worst in the recent string of modernised olde worlde tales. It handily beats claptrap such as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Snow White and the Huntsman for this dubious honour in a subgenre where the bar is set so low that it would take months of digging to find it.
The story (if you can call it that) of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is all in its title. The two children abandoned in a German forest in the Brothers Grimm story grow up to be professional witch killers with foul mouths, Gatling guns, and figure-hugging leather clothes. After a recap of the fairytale, we catch up with the brother and sister team years later when they’re on a mission to rescue some children thought to be kidnapped by witches.
Here, in the sort of small-town Bavaria a videogame might envision, they uncover a particularly powerful and nasty witch’s scheme to make her race fireproof. Considering that witches in Hansel & Gretel seem to die well enough from decapitations, shootings and dismemberments, this may not seem like such a big deal. But Hansel informs us at the beginning of the film that the best way to kill a witch is to “set her ass on fire”. (This qualifies as a droll witticism in the film’s world.)
It’s a silly set-up for an action movie, but one could imagine Guillermo del Toro or Sam Raimi or perhaps Tim Burton on a good day turning it into an enjoyably gooey confectionary of gothic gore and folksy whimsy. But in the hammy hands of Tommy Wirkola, the material turns into a case study in all the ways a film can go horribly wrong.
With its gimmicky 3D (expect lots of arrows and debris to be flung in your face during the action scenes) and a focus on effects at the expense of everything else, this is a shining example many of the worst trends in Hollywood moviemaking. The smarmy self-awareness — the film wants you to know that it knows it is stupid — makes Hansel & Gretel even harder to swallow.
Wirkola, a Norwegian director best known for Nazi zombie B movie Dead Snow, works from a dreadful script with woefully thin characterisation and lame kiss-off lines. He aims for the smart dumbness and the edgy snark of Raimi’s Evil Dead films, but Hansel & Gretel is just irredeemably dumb-dumb. Heck, Shrek is edgier and funnier. In Wirkola’s adolescent world, a strategically placed F-bomb is all you need to be the world’s funniest badass.
His production design is an unimaginative mishmash of elements from The Matrix and Del Toro-style dark fantasy that never coalesces into a coherent vision. And though the plot more or less parses, the interludes of thudding exposition between the action are so half-hearted one wonders why Wirkola even bothered.
Perhaps a few decent set pieces would have lifted this film, but even the action sequences are ineptly staged. It’s cool that Wirkola uses practical effects rather than CGI and that he isn’t afraid to splash some blood and splatter some gore around, but the fights lack tension and coherence. They simply whirl past in a meaningless blur.
You can’t see the trees in the forest for the wooden acting from most of the cast. Gemma Arterton, who specialises in this sort of tone-deaf fantasy fare, is so bland as Gretel that Kristen Stewart’s Snow White looks animated by comparison. Jeremy Renner as Hansel gruffly mumbles his way through his lines, but I’ll credit him for at least looking a bit sheepish about it all.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters trailer (via YouTube):
Famke Janssen has admitted she took her part as the arch witch baddie only because she had a mortgage to pay off. Still, she gamely camps it up, adding at least a bit colour to a horribly leaden film where most cast members seem uncomfortably aware that their lines are falling out of their mouths with a dull metallic clank.
The best thing about Hansel & Gretel is that it is only 85 minutes long — mercifully brief by the standards of the contemporary high-concept Hollywood blockbuster. Even if the film makes every second of those painful minutes feel like an eternity, there is some comfort in knowing that the torture could easily have gone on for longer. — (c) 2013 NewsCentral Media