Dir: Tommy Wirkola
Many of you probably know this about me, but for those who don’t: as much as I like serious, high minded, challenging cinema, as much as I respect the movies as an art form, I also like trash, good trash, but trash nonetheless. I wasn’t exactly envisioning that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters would be good when I sat down for it, I mean, I’d read the title. What I was hoping for was 88 minutes of splattery exploitation inflected witch hunting fun. I mean, I’d read the title. What I got was certainly not what you’d call good, sadly neither was it what you’d call fun.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a hell of a high concept title, it tells you everything you need to know going in. Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) escaped from a witch when they were children, and since then they have been roaming the country (which seems to be somewhere in the United States of Eastern Europe, judging by the mix of accents here) killing witches for money. They’re called to a town to investigate multiple disappearances of children, and end up fighting a grand witch (Famke Janssen) who has a plan to use a once in a generation eclipse of the moon to increase her coven’s power.
That still sounds like it might be fun, approached in the right way, but unfortunately just about everything that can go wrong does go wrong here. Writer/Director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) is working in English for the first time and, not to put to fine a point on it, it shows. The dialogue is pretty laughable throughout, which might have been okay, but the film never goes for an absurdist tone, never truly embraces its silliness in a way that might have made the very straight dialogue and performances (Peter Stormare, who couldn’t give a straight performance to save his life, aside) funny. The other big problem with the writing is how inconsistent it is. For instance, the film exposits that Hansel and Gretel can’t be affected by magic, so how come Hansel STILL has to take injections so he doesn’t die from a spell cast on him 20 years previously? Characterisation suffers the same way: Gretel is a strong woman of action… but then, oh no, it’s the finale and we need a damsel in distress, better make it Gretel. It would have been so much smarter and better to make it Hansel, his Sister is clearly much more use for most of the running time.
On the technical side the news is little better. In front of the camera Renner and Arterton both seem bored, and Renner’s voiceover couldn’t smell any more strongly of contractual obligation if that was what he was actually reading. Arterton has said that she wanted, having been window dressing in a couple of blockbusters, to get into the action more with this film, and she does, but she seems terribly disengaged from it, and the fact that the actors – who have little chemistry – aren’t having fun means that we don’t either. The other problem is one of casting, in the pre-credits sequence Hansel and Gretel seem to be if not twins then certainly very close in age, while Renner is fifteen years older than Arterton and, frankly, looks each and every one of them stood next to her. The boredom, sadly, also extends to Famke Jannsen, whose evil witch is never much of a threat, and never develops any sort of character. Janssen, who is still stunning, is hidden behind make up for most of her screentime, given that she’s hardly allowed to contribute a performance either you wonder why they went to the bother of employing her for the role.
The 3D – apparently a mixture of native and conversion – is pretty awful throughout, but that is par for the course in a film with a lot of fast moving (and fast and nonsensically cut) action. 3D makes action look smeary, so please, filmmakers, stop using it for action films. While it isn’t quite as pronounced as in early conversions, some scenes also have that viewmaster effect that you can get from converted 3D, which usually means that at least one of the three planes of depth looks badly out of focus. Visually, Hansel and Gretel is a mess. It’s not helped by the CGI heavy action, which renders even the most violent bits of the film rather laughable. At one point a character’s head gets stepped on by a troll. In another era that would have made for a very cool practical effect, but here it’s just one pile of pixels intersecting with another pile of pixels, which, for me, robs it of that fun factor.
I really would have liked to say that other critics should lighten up, and that Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is the kind of empty but entertaining splatter comedy I was hoping for, but instead it’s just an empty shell of a movie which, aside from a great animated title sequence which just about rescues it from a bottom grade, delivers nothing on the back of its promising concept.