Director: Tommy Wirkola
Runtime: 88 minutes
Fairy tales are a nasty business, and the works of the Brothers Grimm are no exception. The watered down versions readers know now once scared German tots with casual descriptions of cannibalism, death, mutilation, and various other mayhem that would never fly in today’s Children’s Section. They were violent, they were gory, they were shocking – they were the original horror stories. In a way, the film Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters honors these pre-censored tales, albeit with a touch of silliness and, in this case, a little help from 3D.
The familiar story continues with the titular youths escaping from the candy house to go on and become respected witch hunters. Imbued with an inexplicable immunity to magic, the adult brother and sister team (played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) travel the world rescuing peasants from evil hags of all types. When a village hires them to find a number of children that have gone missing, the two come to blows with a powerful grand witch (Famke Janssen) who also provides a link to the duo’s strange past.
In the wrong hands, the eye roll-inducing novelty premise would either overindulge in camp, or be forced to wear the ill-fitting guise of a serious drama. Fortunately, the project was able to grip Tommy Wirkola, the director who resurrected Nazi zombies for the Norwegian dark horror comedy, Dead Snow. His style, combined with support from producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay – yes, you read that correctly – pretty much guaranteed the tone would stay far, far away from anything serious. As a result, instead of struggling to heighten a ridiculous concept, Wirkola basks in it to craft an unironic, cartoonishly violent experience full of smashed heads, exploding bodies, and collisions with tree trunks.
Wirkola’s vision is aided by a very game cast, who make the most of their limited roles. The two leads display a decent chemistry, despite an inability to buy Renner as a comedic actor — though he puts his heart into choice one liners like, “If you’re gonna kill a witch, set her ass on fire,” it didn’t quite reach the desired effect. On the other hand, Janssen voraciously chews the scenery in her supporting role, as does character actor Peter Stormare, who portrays the village’s power-hungry sheriff. There’s also the many people hired to play witches, who, while entertaining, are often upstaged by their drug store Halloween latex make-up and costumes — at one point, many of them gather together for a crowd scene that looks more like goth night at a drag club than a coven.
The over-the-top performances often compensate for the flawed visuals, which cheapen the action. The numerous fight scenes fall victim to poorly rendered CGI and special effects that are further deteriorated by the blur of 3D conversion. The only footage that benefited from the technology was the animated title sequence – otherwise, it only serves to simulate the experience of having a tree branch blocking your view, or having debris fly at your face.
I was struck most, however, by the addition of Edward, a troll who swoops in to save Gretel during one particularly bloody scuffle. Actor Derek Mears – who stepped into the role of Jason Voorhees in the 2009 Friday the 13th remake — donned a giant creature suit to become the mythical being, and the quality of the character is impressive. His look, which was accomplished with practical and special effects, is a welcome throwback to the low-tech fantasy films of my youth, most notably The Neverending Story. As a result, he surpasses the creations in contemporaries like Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which is quite a feat for the fun-loving Wirkola and his crew.
Despite its shortcomings, Hansel and Gretel is a naughty bit of cinematic junk food that boasts a few outstanding moments. It definitely won’t keep children from wandering into the woods like its cautionary source material, but it should offer plenty of laughs, both guilty and genuine.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is now in wide release.
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