In today’s news media society, it’s impossible to not see the original “Hansel and Gretel” fairy tale as a warning to children against childhood predators. On the basis of certain scenes in “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” it would appear that director/co-writer Tommy Wirkola understood this all too well; the prologue sequence, which directly adapts the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, shows the title characters as children trapped in the gingerbread house of a wicked witch, who’s not only ghoulish in appearance but also intimidating and physically aggressive in the least entertaining of ways. Rather than feel exhilarated – or, at the very least, intrigued – we only feel frightened and violated, and we just want the scene to be over with. Unfortunately, that involves Gretel defeating the witch by stabbing her repeatedly and shoving her into a hellish oven.
If Wirkola takes this aspect of the story too seriously, he doesn’t take the rest of it seriously enough. “Witch Hunters,” a continuation of the Grimm tale that reinterprets the title characters as grownup supernatural vigilantes, is incredibly bad – a confused and lifeless cross between an action thriller, a dark comedy, and a splatter film. Many critics have referred to it as anachronistic, and indeed it is, but not in a pleasingly stylistic way; the screenplay, with its crude four-letter dialogue and lazy witticisms, seems to have been written by and for teenagers with short attention spans. Most of the actors, who are typically reliable, seem ill at ease throughout most of the film, as if they were bewildered by their casting and unable to make sense of the material. Its presentation in 3D is appalling, in part because of action scenes edited into indecipherable blurs of motion, but mostly because the process’ picture-dimming effects and Wirkola’s insistence on having much of the story take place at nighttime in deep shadows.
Ever since their childhood ordeal, brought on after their parents abandoned them in the woods, brother/sister duo Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) have made it their life’s mission to hunt down and destroy all the world’s witches with their mini arsenal of machineguns and crossbows. Having successfully rescued several missing children, their services are called upon by the mayor of a small, gloomy Bavarian village nestled in the woods, where the ignorant people spend their days waiting to burn suspected witches at the stake. On top of that list is the local sheriff (Peter Stormare), whose bloodlust is obsessive and murderous. Hansel and Gretel’s current task is to stop a ruthless and powerful witch named Muriel (Famke Janssen) from sacrificing twelve boys and twelve girls before the next blood moon. In the process, hidden chapters of the siblings’ shared past will be revealed.
As thin as this plot admittedly is, you can clearly see the potential for a fun, escapist movie. Too bad the project was placed in the wrong hands; when he’s not overburdening audiences with heavy-handed depictions of children in mortal danger, he’s saturating the story with cornball dialogue, overly aggressive action sequences, and a surprising abundance of gore effects. I distinctly remember a scene in which a hulking troll treats the heads of several men the same way Gallagher would treat a crop of watermelons. One of the heads gets stomped on like a bug. And then there are small narrative touches that are both ridiculous and unnecessary. One is the milkman delivering fresh bottles of milk with posters of missing children glued on to them. Another is Gretel’s unlikely alliance with the aforementioned troll, a big, dumb lug who slowly mouths out the name Edward. Another still is Hansel’s diabetes, referred to as “the sugar sickness,” brought on when the witch that kidnapped him as a child tried to fatten him up with nothing but candy. We periodically see him injecting inexplicable doses of insulin into his leg.
Renner, normally an engaging presence, gives a performance so dull and dreary that he barely comes across as a character, let alone as a human being. He must have known that the material was unworthy of his talent; that would definitely explain why he couldn’t muster up the energy necessary to take interest in his role. Because he distances himself, the inevitable blossoming romance between his character and that of actress Pihla Viitala cannot be taken seriously. She plays a mysterious yet kind young woman named Mina, whose ultimate purpose to the story is so transparent that it registers as nothing other than an anticlimax. This wouldn’t have been a problem had anyone worked to make the film entertaining.
How is it possible that, although we understand how wicked the bad witches are, their deaths, especially towards the end of the film, still come off less like the slaying of villains and more like a brutal ethnic cleansing? Perhaps I’m uncomfortable with the development of the siblings – or, more specifically, of Hansel, whose trauma sparked a hatred within him that eventually fanned into flames of intolerance. Although he’s helping innocent children, his need for justice has nevertheless turned him into a homicidal monster. This too could be influenced by news media society, which tells us that some child predators can actually be treated, though not altogether cured. The more I think about “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” the more I come to the conclusion that the underlying concept is more disturbing for today’s audiences that it probably was for yesterday’s readers.