The fairy tales of Europe, particularly those compiled by the Grimms, are among the oldest continuously-told stories in the world. The brothers published their compilation in 1812. The stories were centuries old even then, passed down generation to generation. They’re still told today. And, like anything that is passed down via oral tradition, the tales sometimes change with the telling, depending on what gets remembered or forgotten, or what is altered to be more appropriate to the audience, or what embellishments the storyteller decides to throw in. So it’s only natural that when fairy tales are adapted to the big screen — which has been a trend of late — the stories are sometimes altered to the point of being nearly unrecognizable.
Not that this is an entirely bad thing, of course. It’s just that it means the new story has to hold its own while also trying not to trample on any fondness the audience may have for the original. In Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, released earlier this year, the original story of a pair of kids encountering a witch in a gingerbread cottage is used as the prologue before the opening credits. After that, it’s essentially telling its own story, although one that does eventually loop back into the question of just why Hansel and Gretel were out alone in the woods to begin with.
Making a gingerbread house look creepy is a difficult task, and I applaud the special effects team for the effort, even if the results fall short.
The premise needs little explanation beyond the title. After their encounter in the gingerbread cottage, the orphaned Hansel and Gretel continued to go up against witches, and have now acquired a reputation as bounty hunters against the supernatural. Played by Gemma Arterton, Gretel is a tough, no-nonsense fighter who is nevertheless the smoother public-relations side of the duo. Hansel (Jeremy Renner) is sarcastic and stand-offish, preferring not to get close to people. He’s also diabetic, which provides occasional moments of plot concern. I admit I’m not completely familiar with how much leeway diabetics have in treating themselves with insulin injections, but I suspect it’s more than is shown here. Hansel has a watch that lets him know when it’s time, and he has mere seconds before he starts visibly weakening, and recovers immediately upon injection. If real life cases required that one always wait until the last possible second, no doubt the mortality rate would be considerably higher, so it’s playing fast and loose with medical biology.
Hansel and Gretel are summoned to a small town on the edge of a forest to investigate the disappearances of multiple children. They immediately encounter opposition from the local sheriff, played by Peter Stormare, who seems to be carving out an oddly specific niche for himself for playing weird guys in Grimm’s fairy tale adaptations. The sheriff thinks he has already caught the witch responsible, but Hansel sets the woman free, as she doesn’t show any of the rot that sets in when someone practices black magic. The woman, Mina (Pihla Viitala) shows up a few times throughout the film expressing interest in Hansel, helping to round out the edges of Hansel’s character. After sorting things out, Hansel and Gretel set in to hunting down the local witch contingent with an arsenal of steampunk guns, crossbows, and other assorted weaponry.
If witches generally look like this, identifying them has to be the easiest part of the job.
This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a smart movie. It’s not even a film where one can “turn your brain off”, as no matter what your field of expertise, there’s something so ludicrously wrong that it’s bound to raise an eyebrow. The film errs on biology, astronomy, physics and ballistics, and probably baking. It’s even deliberately inconsistent with its own rules; while a witch can’t hide what she is, this rule is suspended for a “grand witch” (and appears to be the only distinction between a witch and a “grand witch” aside from rank). This is apparently done so that they can have their cake and eat it to when it comes to making use of special effects to make witches creepy while also showing off Famke Janssen. The story relies on a great deal of contrivance and coincidence, and on characters not knowing key plot points they probably ought to know, to the point where one has to wonder if Hansel and Gretel both suffered concussions during their gingerbread ordeal.
And yet, despite all the ways in which the movie is simply dumb, it succeeds in one critical manner: it’s a lot of fun to watch. The acting is almost as over-the-top as the action, but it works somehow. It’s almost never believable, but it’s always entertaining. Arterton, Renner, and Janssen all deliver performances that dominate the screen, and sometimes it seems like a three-way competition to see who can devour the most scenery (Janssen usually wins). But it’s the kind of over-the-top performance that works for the film rather than against it; the actors are clearly having fun with the roles, and the audience is encouraged to have fun with the film. If it had any sort of pretentiousness to it at all, it wouldn’t work. But without ever crossing the line into deliberate camp, the film has a playful attitude about its subject matter. It’s a fairy tale. It’s meant to be fun.
This was director Tommy Wirkola’s English-language debut, and though it won’t catapult him into the realm of household recognition, it’s a pretty good introduction to the global market. If I were to see his name attached to a non-Hansel and Gretel project (a sequel is reportedly in the works), I wouldn’t be expecting greatness from it… but I would be anticipating the possibility of a good time. Which is really all one can ask for.