The key moment of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t even in the actual plot of the movie. At the beginning of the film, during the credit sequence, two names appear: Produced by Adam McKay and Will Ferrell. Now, maybe it’s just a title, maybe they own part of one of the production companies responsible, but it’s quite telling because clearly, this movie was not meant to be taken seriously. Just take a look at that poster, is this something you really want to play grim and gritty, with posturing and steely faces? Jeremy Renner is a charming dude, Gemma Arterton is well, you know, a face and is used to these kinds of shlock fests (Clash of the Titans anyone?) And yet…here we are, entrenched in some grittalistic revenge mystery thing that is so hell bent on looking cool and being ‘badass’ or ‘gangster’ and ‘wildly, inhumanly anachronistic’ that it becomes less of a movie, and more of a hostage situation where the film-makers are holding your childhood for ransom while wielding, you guessed it, wildly, inhumanly anachronistic weapons.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Two kids stumble onto the candy house of a witch and are forced to kill the thing and then they grow up and seek out witches wherever they go. Thinking it over, it is actually an intriguing, if completely cliche, premise that could work for a movie, warts and all. (Ba dum dum). Perhaps they should have spent a little more time fleshing out the paper thin characters, the been there-done that plot instead of having our heroes swearing up a storm through the German forests. When a bunch of kids go missing in a small town, the local mayor hires Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), world famous witch hunters (in case the title didn’t give it away) to find the kids and hunt down the witches. Opposing them is the town sheriff (another dastardly role from Peter Stormare) and the Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) who needs the kids for a ritual to happen at a certain time in order to make all witches immune to fire. The past is dredged up, battles are fought and many, many heads are crushed in the name of entertainment.
The film is too dark to be taken as a fun diversion; there is ample swearing and the violence borders on the ‘ultra’, but it’s too light and goofy to be taken seriously, too, The weapons wielded by our heroes are patently ridiculous, the costumes are from a teenager’s idea of anything before the Industrial Revolution and the witch designs seem like a bad cross between an 80s punk rocker and a Sam Raimi creation, without the toughness of the former nor the playfulness of the latter. Everybody in it feels the same way and it shows. Renner moved past ‘tall, dark and brooding anti-hero’ to ‘tall, dark and bored guy in need of a new car’. There are a few moments when a more charming Hansel comes out, such as when he’s chatting with Mina (Pihla Vitala) but the rest of the time he’s all serious business; or as serious a business one can have while appearing in a movie called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. I can’t blame Gemma Arterton for not trying, she just always comes off as aloof, almost ethereal and detached, in every movie she appears in like she’s afraid this camera thing is going to steal her soul. Famke Janssen at least kind of gets the movie she’s supposed to be in, but the director (name) insists she appear in another one, so her Muriel loses a lot of her bite and edge and is reduced to another punching bag for our heroes.
The action, arguably the only draw to this film outside of the incredible body of Mina, is unintelligible, relying more on the sound of a thing than the look of a thing. A lot of cool stuff happens, I’m pretty sure, but it’s as if Renner brought his people over from The Bourne Legacy and just started throwing shit willy nilly. The momentum of the action in the film isn’t dictated by the action and characters, it’s dictated by the edits and sound effects. It’s sad because witch battles have been proven to be quite effective on film, isn’t that right Harry Potter?
Right now, we are in the 80s and 90s of the Fairy Tale Movement. Shit’s not good, but why? The closest facsimile we have is the comic book movement, or perhaps even, sigh…the video game movie movement. Unfortunately for fairy tales, it’s coming in the wake of the comic book movement, trying to cash in on the craze but sadly getting caught up and tossed about. The comic book movies didn’t have the grim and gritty aspects it so enjoys these days right out of the gate, but with the all of the fairy tale adaptations, such as Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman and anything else that asshole who produced Snow White produces (not technically fairy tales) are collateral damage in the quest to make things more “realistic”. Left by the wayside is fun, adventure and despite all evidence to the contrary, fun does not, should not, have to be violent. Poor Hansel and Gretel, lost in the woods, trying to find their way out and finding, not a witch, but an ideal, a way of thinking that will refuse to grow up long after they do.