Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (review)

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Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters red light Gemma Arterton Jeremy Renner

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.

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Thu, Feb 28, 2013 2:49pm

Oh, hell. I had hopes for this one at least as a cheesefest. Bah. Humbug.

Dr. Rocketscience
Dr. Rocketscience
reply to  RogerBW
Thu, Feb 28, 2013 10:15pm

Well, I giggled through the whole thing, starting when Gemma Aterton tells Peter Stormere that she’s “gonna blow [his] sheriff’s brains all over these fucking hillbillies.” But then I’m also the guy who giggled all the way through The Spirit starting when Sam Jackson tells Gabriel Macht that “toilets are always funny.” So, make of that what you will.

Matt Clayton
reply to  RogerBW
Fri, Mar 01, 2013 5:59am

I enjoyed myself immensely with this. I can definitely see where MaryAnn is coming with this, but it’s meant to be ridiculous and anachronistic. But I do agree that the movie felt rushed, and they could’ve added on 5-10 minutes to help smooth the pacing.

But MaryAnn, the movie DOES explain why Hansel and Gretel are immune to witches’ magic. It’s half-assed, but it’s there.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Matt Clayton
Fri, Mar 01, 2013 4:58pm

It doesn’t explain so much as half-assed-justify because it realizes it hasn’t done its worldbuilding well.

If it’s all meant to be ridiculous and anachronistic, it doesn’t even do that well.

reply to  RogerBW
Sun, Mar 03, 2013 2:14pm

Go see it Roger, and make up your own bloody mind :-)

reply to  Guest
Sun, Mar 03, 2013 2:30pm

I agree with MaryAnn about 80% of the time – she has a higher tolerance for arty, important films than I do – but when she doesn’t like a simple action flick, odds are pretty good that I won’t either. So while this may not drop off my list completely, it’s fallen a long way down.

reply to  RogerBW
Sun, Mar 03, 2013 2:33pm

Fair play. We all have our go-to.

Dan O'Neill
Thu, Feb 28, 2013 5:01pm

Good review. It’s a dumb movie, but fun for the time it’s on-screen. That’s just about it, really.

reply to  Dan O'Neill
Fri, Mar 01, 2013 3:59am

I’m truly curious: if you agree with the review (which was unequivocally negative), what did you think was fun about the movie?

Fri, Mar 01, 2013 6:32pm

Am not sure why so many critics seem to be kicking this around town. Can’t remember the last time I had so much fun with a movie. Famke Janssen gave good witch, and lots of great visual gags. Tone was a little uneven at times, and I agree about the unnecessary sex-scene. Not often that I am quite so baffled as to why my better half and I had such a good time, while the critical elite seem to be above that?

reply to  Guest
Sun, Mar 03, 2013 12:16pm

To aggregate a movie’s worth with a 3 colour scoring system, seems indicative of the critic’s refusal to see anything worthwhile in this movie. It is an entertainment.

reply to  thomskis
Sun, Mar 03, 2013 6:39pm

She wasn’t entertained. She said what she thought was good about the movie, which wasn’t much. What do you want from her?

English Movies
Sat, Mar 02, 2013 2:36pm

magic and action together was a great combination, but this all fairy tells had took all the surprise from the movies.

Mon, Mar 04, 2013 6:01pm

I don’t have to see this movie to see that this is Hollywood doing what it always does – trying to cash in on the success of some other hit by doing some generic version of it. For a time there were generics to cash in on James Bond, then generics to cash in on Alien, then Star Wars, then Raiders. There’ve been a lot Harry Potter generics, now this new group – the LOTR generics. All of them have the same objective: come up some contrived nonsense fantasy setting so that the leads eventually end up in front of an Army to lead protracted, nonsensical, noisy, violent CGI-heavy battles scenes. I loved LOTR but the all the battle scenes could have been half as long for my taste. Now movies that are made for no other purpose? No, thanks. If you like that, well, whatever tugs your train.

Mon, Mar 18, 2013 3:56pm

Bad, bad, bad.

Next to it being awfully trashy instead of funnily campy (and many other complaints), my biggest point of contention with this movie is that it fails to be even remotely frightening.

The witches look like clowns, the CGI is all over the place, the 3D is unneccessary and the characters are so flat I didn’t believe any of the emotions that were suppoed to be there and ultimately didn’t care whether they lived or died.

If you wanna see a genuinely frightening, athmospheric Hänsel und Gretel movie (and speak German or find a subtitled version), I highly recommend this one filmed on a tiny budget in Germany: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/H%C3%A4nsel_und_Gretel_(2006).

No CGI, no special effects, nobody’s head explodes and yet, so much more disturbing – as a fairy tale about abandonment and overcoming fear and evil should be.