Review: Wirkola's 'Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters' is a Brainless Blast
by Jeremy Kirk
January 25, 2013
Tommy Wirkola had a dream. The writer/director of the Nazi zombie flick, Dead Snow, wanted to retell a classic fairy tale, Hansel & Gretel, with the twist that the pair of siblings grew up to become bounty hunters ridding the world of witches. Like Dead Snow, the director's tongue-through-cheek aesthetics would create a fine bloody adventure for this new pair of Gothic superheroes, and to his credit, he's pulled it off. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is slick, bombastic fun that nails you with so much ferocious entertainment, you overlook how brainless it is. Welcome to escapism with your guide Tommy Wirkola.
Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton play the title characters, leather-clad, crossbow-wielding mercs walking the dirty countryside in pursuit of those who would use witchcraft for evil. Wirkola's screenplay isn't so much an origin story as it is the latest adventure for Hansel and Gretel, their previous exploits told to us through opening credit headlines. This latest adventure is slim at best, something about children being taken and a blood moon that makes witches impervious to fire, the best way to dispatch of their kind. The story is merely an excuse for action, and Wirkola's flare for the ridiculous keeps that action fun and furious.
The general style of the film; the way the characters dress, the grimy village where much of the action takes place, even the witches flying around covered in fabric seems reminiscent of Van Helsing, the Stephen Sommers' blockbuster monster movie from nine years back. This element to Hansel & Gretel alone has caused some to question its validity right from the moment the first trailer dropped. But what these early naysayers weren't factoring in was how well the production design of Van Helsing really was. Yes, the film was bloated and stupid. At least Hansel & Gretel knows to be less than 90 minutes in length.
The film's fast-paced structuring doesn't allow for much character development, and any idea of breathing gets left far behind. That aspect will leave you cold if you can't allow the movie to take you on the adventure it has in store for you. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters works because it's fun, Renner and Arterton seemingly having a blast firing off anachronistic swear-quips and rattling off anachronistic gattling gun bullets. Yes, the word anachronistic gets driven into Hansel & Gretel like a spike in the mud, but it's a movie about witches, something that apparently isn't even a secret in this fantastical world. That Hansel picked up a nasty case of diabetes while in the first witch's house is a nice bit of reality tossed in.
The writer/director fills this land of make believe with ghouls, goblins, gutter-mouths, guts, all building a strange R-rated air to the film. The quips loaded with F-bombs and decapitated heads add an interesting edge to Hansel & Gretel, but it more-often-than-not feels shoehorned in, as if Wirkola needed the movie to be for adults only. It's not a distracting aspect to the film. As with the film's weightlessness, the left-and-right bombardment of fun action keeps you good and distracted.
As do the secondary performances, the villains of the piece both of the monster as well as the human sorts. Peter Stormare does a fine job playing Peter Stormare, that is to say he's been handily playing himself for years. This time around, though, he's dressed up as the creepy sheriff hell-bent on going after witches in all the wrong ways. Famke Janssen has found her calling as the sinister Muriel, the film's main antagonist. Goldeneye showed us Janssen's sadistic but sexy side, and she still pulls that out effortlessly. Whether its the excellent visual effects or any part of Derek Mears' performance as Edward, a troll sworn to the protect witches, the character is probably the standout of the film. Marrying performance with visual effects both practical and digital - It remains to be known how much of Edward is each of these - always brings out interesting results, and the troll character here is absolutely no exception.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is comfort food for the faux-goth crowd, the group whose one Marilyn Manson CD proves they used to rock black. But as forced and obvious as much of the film is, it still remains a solid bit of entertainment that wears its style-over-substance honor like a crown. Hansel & Gretel knows what it is. More importantly, writer/director Tommy Wirkola knows what it is, and with everyone involved on board with how unabashedly ludicrous it is, the resulting film never fails in making you enjoy it. Exceedingly violent but never vulgar, it's a fairy tale for adults who still think they're kids, and if that doesn't even sway you, at least it goes by quickly.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10