Young siblings Hansel & Gretel (played as adults by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) are awoken at the dark of night by their parents, their father rushes them into the woods and sets them loose. Lost and alone, the brother and sister stumble upon a strange house made of candies, treats and everything sweet. Upon entering the home they encounter an evil witch who captures the children with plans of turning them into her next meal. Hansel & Gretel eventually get the upper hand on the witch and shove her into the oven. Tainted by their near death experience, both children grow up with an inherent hatred towards all witches and become bounty hunters who specialize in the hunting and killing of dark magic wielders. Only when they return to their home town for their latest job do they learn of a secret ritual which will allow the broomstick riding sorceresses to gain the ultimate power.
Fairy tale revisionist stories haven't really hit that sweet spot just yet. 2010's "Alice in Wonderland" was a visual treat but lacked any real substance, 2011's "Red Riding Hood" was too caught up trying to be the next "Twilight" and both of the 2012 Snow white films "Mirror, Mirror" and "Snow White & the Huntsman" left more than a bit to be desired from their distinctly different takes on the classic tale. Only the recent television series "Once Upon A Time..." has gotten any real mileage out of retelling these well worn tales. But now, finally, director Tommy Wirkola has found a way to make the formula work. While "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" isn't what some would call a good movie, it certainly knows what it is and what it wants to do and succeeds at nearly everything it sets out to do which is a far cry from anything those other failures can claim.
So, what exactly was the secret ingredient? The magic potion that broke the spell for these horrible Hollywood attempts at capitalizing on the recent resurgence of classic fairy tales? It's simple really, just play it like it is. Wirkola knows that having Hansel & Gretel, two child characters from the famous brothers Grimm fairy tale transform into these gun toting and crossbow wielding witch hunters is just sort of crazy ridiculous. He takes that knowledge and runs with it though, he goes all in and treats the material like the sort of crazed acid trip that it really is. By doing that he averts any chance of anyone ever misconstruing the film for anything other than the manic, pulpy good time that it is. If the tone doesn't convince you of any of that, then its content sure as hell will.
After a lot of back and forth, "Hansel & Gretel" was released with a well deserved R rating and what a difference that makes. The ongoing debate over whether or not gore, foul language and violence actually benefits a film or detracts from it is something that will likely never be resolved, but there is no denying that those qualities helped elevate what would have been a rather tame and safe experience into something a lot more loose and out of control and ultimately more fun. While it takes some getting used to hearing Hansel & Gretel drop F-bombs like nobodies business, the darker side of the story really benefits from that added edge the gore and violence bring to the table. When you see witches get diced, cut in half, riddled with bullets, heads cut off or otherwise destroyed in a grotesque manner it really sells the idea that these two have a rather grim and dirty job. Even though there is no real benefit storywise from watching someone have their head squished or body explode and litter a room with their entrails, it sure is invigorating and more importantly, it's fun.
One of the few stumbling blocks of "Hansel & Gretel" is its script, or more to the point its dialog. Even dumb B-style movies like this need some clever and witty dialog to help make up for the lack of any real substance, but the written word seems to have failed our two witch hunters this time out. It's not so much that the delivery is bad, all the principal actors sell their dialog like pros, its just that it is all so rudimentary and lifeless compared to the visual treats that it at times feels overly pedestrian and threatens to detract from the otherwise fun festivities. Luckily all the actors seem to be having a lot of fun with the dialog, as cliche riden as it is. Renner and Arterton make for a fun duo and even though they are saddled with being the more straight faced players, they still find a way to have fun with the material (especially Renner with his deadpan delivery). They also have a good stable of supporting actors to rely on such as Famke Janssen chewing up the scenery as the main evil witch and Peter Stormare turning in yet another fun villain type character.
To be fair, the film does try to create meaningful connections between some of its characters. Hansel forms a somewhat predictable relationship with the girl Mina (Pihlla Viitala) he and Gretel saved from being burned. Gretel bonds with the troll Edward who saves her from certain death and the duo bring on a third party with their biggest fan Ben (Thomas Mann) in tow to help with the massive amount of witches they have to deal with. While it is a noble gesture to try and provide more than stupid thrills for the audience during its downtime (of which there is little thankfully), the results are lackluster to say the least. Hansel and Mina's relationship is barely even half baked with a completely unnecessary dip into a little pond and Ben doesn't really do a whole lot to earn his spot on the team and makes no impression either good or bad. About the only worthwhile relationship is the friendship between Edward and Gretel and they aren't exactly the cutest couple.
Like the script and paper thin character development, some dodgy (but well hidden) effects work also pop up from time to time that doesn't exactly take you out of the film, but it does stand out more often than not which becomes slightly distracting. Take the troll Edward for instance, while it is great to see filmmakers still employing the use of practical effects, some of it just doesn't look that good up close. From a distance Edward looks fine and it is a thrill to see a non CG creation in this day and age, but when the camera gets in close it sort of loses some of its magic. On the flip side however, all of the witches are pretty amazing creations. They look menacing as all hell as one would expect and will likely scare the s**t out of any kids who lay eyes upon them and will haunt their dreams for many a night. These are a constant visual and creative treat for any horror/creature fans out there.
It's rather easy to look past most of the film's technical and narrative shortcomings thanks to its sheer enthusiasm to go for broke and fully embrace the ridiculous nature of its premise. This movie is dumb, but it is unapologetically dumb. Sure, there are plot holes (why only now do Hansel & Gretel return home?), inconsistencies (Hansel's diabetes on again, off again nature) and all manner of bizarre coincidences (Hansel &; Gretel's miraculous meet up later in the film) that will make anyone silly enough to think too much about what they are watching suddenly begin to realize that nothing really makes much sense. But when you have a coven of witches in a medieval setting getting gunned down and ripped to pieces by a gigantic mounted Gatling gun, how can you possibly not fall under its campy spell?