Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (review)
I’m “biast” (pro): love the concept; love the cast
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It takes a special kind of incompetence — or a special kind of evil — to clad the likes of Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton in leather and hand them crossbows and a license to kill witches in a demented spin on a Renaissance Festival and end up with a result that is this relentlessly lifeless.
Hansel and Gretel. You know, from the fairy tales — the really dark, really bitter ones.Theirs is a tale of famine and parental abandonment and cannibalistic freakin’ witches. All of which they survive. What if they grew up to be witch hunters? It’s such a clever concept.
So how can it be that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters lacks all sense of magic, of myth, of danger, of humor, of power? How can it be such a compete and utter all-around disaster? Its source material alone should have lent it a certain gravitas, a certain wonder, if only accidentally. We can only conclude that writer-director Tommy Wirkola deliberately flattened all hint of character and quirkiness and just plain scary primal awe out of what, in a parallel universe less blanderized than our own, is a movie that rings with rage and revenge and touches a visceral core in the viewer that remembers being a helpless, dependent child and never got over that terror.
It’s probably too much to expect, even in that parallel universe, that any movie called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters would go anywhere near dealing with why real women in the real past got branded witches, even in a thematic metaphoric way that acknowledges our culture’s long tradition of abusing women for being women. But could we at least get a reasonable approximation of a system of fictional magic that makes even a little bit of coherent sense? We haven’t got a clue here — apparently Wirkola doesn’t either — what the scope of a witch’s powers might be, what the limitations might be, or even why some people might appear to be immune to a witch’s powers while others in ostensibly the same position might not be. It creates a frustrating sense that anything at all could happen at any time, which eventually grows into the tedious sense of almost everything being random. The film’s worldbuilding sucks, too: “This isn’t a regular witch’s lair,” Hansel says at one point. We haven’t got a clue what a regular witch’s lair is, or how this one is different.
But hey, there’s no time for exploring magic when there’s some exploding to be done! Of course there are huge battle scenes in what is essential a story about (supposedly) stealthy bounty hunters, because it ain’t awesome unless something blows up. But the action sequences make no sense, either, and not only because some haphazard application of magic might suddenly intrude. There’s no visual logic to how the action is presented, and it’s almost impossible to determine what the hell is going on anytime the visual pace picks up. Even if this were intended to be a pure action adrenaline thrill ride of a movie, it’s lacking even the most rudimentary sort of action-movie art, the kind that lets you understand what’s happening onscreen.
I get a distinct whiff of half the movie being left on the cutting-room floor. Never mind the fact that mythmaking takes time… but one-liners have to be earned. They’re punchlines to jokes you didn’t even realize were being set up — except they get no setup here, so they fizzle the moment they’re delivered. (There’s deadpan. And then there’s just dead.) Brief attempts to be amusingly anachronistic — Hansel and Gretel have a “fanboy” (Thomas Mann: Beautiful Creatures, Fun Size); Hansel has a gearpunkish alarm clock — serve no purpose but as their own sorts of (unfunny) jokes; a clever movie would weave them into the story, not simply tack them on to a corner of it.
Even the one halfway good thing the film manages — letting Renner (The Bourne Legacy, Avengers Assemble) and Arterton (Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Clash of the Titans)create a warm, genuine onscreen brother-sister relationship at its core, which is so rare and hence so refreshing — it screws up. As I was enduring this lumbering medieval mess, I kept telling myself, At least there won’t be a gratuitous sex scene. But, actually, there is. Oh, it doesn’t feature Hansel and Gretel together — the movie isn’t quite that bad. But that’s kinda the only way it could be worse.