BY AMBER KELLY-ANDERSON
There is a scene midway through Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters where Hansel (Jeremy Renner), upon awakening battered, upside down in a tree, wryly observes, “Oh shit.” One might wonder if Renner had similar thoughts while filming this misfired attempt at an adult twist on the classic Grimm fairytale. In the same period Renner was also shooting The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy, two films that showcase his talents as both leading and ensemble man of action, something that Hansel & Gretel fails to do. Instead, Renner spends most of the film looking smugly annoyed while flipping steampunk weapons and spouting throw-way, unnecessarily profanity-laden exclamations.
Hansel & Gretel limps through 88 minutes with the unfortunate handicap of a potentially good story mucked up through too many ideas that are never fully developed. The film begins with a spin on the classic story: children Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the forest by their father (for reasons that become clear later) only to stumble upon a sugar shack in the woods. In one of the movies’ many borrowed aesthetics, this witch’s sweet temptation palace looks like a Hobbit hole reconstructed by Terry Gilliam for a live action Candyland. The cannibalistic witch inside, American Horror Story’s Infantata all grown up, has some unforeseen complications with her would-be amuse bouche and finds herself on the wrong side of the fire.
During one of the film’s few clever sequences, we learn how the “Heroic Orphans” continued their witch-slaying ways as their exploits unfold in a series of drawings and articles styled after the historical witch hunt pamphlets used in the Middle Ages. Grown-up Gretel (Quantum of Solace’s Gemma Arterton who manages to somehow make spunky slightly bland) and Hansel, still dealing with some serious abandonment issues, not to mention wiccaphobia, have become badass witch bounty hunters (we know they are badass because they wear leather while dropping bullets and f-bombs). A number of child abductions in German village Augsburg—close to where the pair grew up (a fact they are oddly oblivious to)—brings in the brother/sister team to destroy a powerful witch (Famke Janssen) before the Blood Moon. Much flying through the woods, exploding bodies, and burning of witches abounds.
Writer/director Tommy Wirkola seems determined to make a genre crashing action fantasy that throws in Western, Gothic Romance, Horror, and Comedy, but his ideas (especially the good ones) are not defined enough to sustain the film. There is a clever gag about the name of an otherworldly creature that saves Gretel and a vaguely interesting idea that Hansel, having been stuffed with candy by the witch, is now a self-medicating diabetic. But even these are so heavy handed (as is the half-hearted 3D) they fail to achieve the intended wit. Janssen (also a former Bond girl), her face caked under a layer of feature-freezing make up lifted from Hellboy II, goes through the motions of villainy, leaving me longing for her sadistic turn as Xenia Onatopp in GoldenEye. Like the rest of the film, it is as if the director did not trust her enough to perform without a borrowed gimmick.
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