Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Was there any doubt that “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” was going to be a terrible movie? Dumped in the January wilderness reserved for the weakest cinematic product, Scandinavian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola’s busy spin on the Brothers Grimm ejects most of the folktale’s ideas of interest. Surprisingly, Wirkola finds no use for the themes exploring cannibalism and abandonment, opting instead to visit the siblings as grown-up mercenaries who have developed a talent for dispatching evil crones. The edible house of confection remains (in one of the movie’s only artful touches of production design), but this revisionist concoction, with its endless supply of rapid-fire weapons and punky leather duds, aims for the same kind of territory covered in “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Wirkola, whose low-budget horror-comedy “Dead Snow” attracted some kind of cult following (whatever that means in the fractured, narrow audience slices of the post-YouTube landscape) with its zombie Nazis, obviously intends for the audience to laugh as much as cringe at “Hansel & Gretel,” but the numbing repetition of blood and guts rocketing toward the camera’s lens is tired by the third time it happens, and downright annoying once you lose count. A few gore-free gags flirt with the alleviation of audience malaise – the woodcut-style images of missing children on bottles of fresh milk is worth a smile – but Wirkola shows little interest in developing any of his characters beyond their most basic impulses.

Jeremy Renner’s performance has reviewers scrambling to paint a picture of disaffection or phone-it-in boredom, but maybe his diabetic Hansel’s blood-sugar is just low. As Gretel, Gemma Arterton is given a little more to do in subplots involving the misogynist gang of thugs led by corrupt, dunderpate Sheriff Berrigner (Peter Stormare) and a gruesome, hulking ogre named Edward (Derek Mears). Famke Janssen, playing head witch Muriel, hasn’t been particularly gracious describing her role in interviews, indicating she took the part for the cash. The rest of the movie could use a little of Janssen’s honesty.

A grown-up brother/sister team based on iconic fairy tale figures carries the screenwriting challenge of establishing chemistry without suggesting incestuous feelings, and Wirkola mostly avoids the Luke and Leia weirdness. One scene, in which the siblings are reunited following a heavily plotted separation, sets off the  creepy alarm, but the leads are both given, more or less, subplots involving love interests. Hansel gets naked and submerges in healing waters with a helpful white witch in a moment that Andrew Barker cleverly describes as a “pretense for skinny-dipping [that] makes Prince’s Lake Minnetonka line seem like the height of subtle seduction.” Less appealing is Gretel’s fawning suitor, a stupefied superfan ready to cop a feel when Gretel is unconscious.

The whole thing reeks of desperation, and the liberal use of anachronistic catchphrases laden with profanity might have worked if the action wasn’t an endless display of relentlessly similar combat scenes. As the movie builds toward its showdown climax, a set-piece involving a convention of witches from surrounding territories, the filmmakers proudly show off a gallery of nasties, but it is too little, too late. The outcome is guaranteed, the action beats come from a kit, and the viewer is so far ahead of it all that some will make for the exits before the tacked-on epilogue.

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