Directed by: Tommy Wirkola
Written by: Tommy Wirkola, Dante Harper
Featuring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Derek Mears, Peter Stormare
Given the title, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters could have been a glorious slice of cheesy goodness. But director Tommy Wirkola (best known to American audiences for Dead Snow) played it straight and, despite a few moments of humor early on, delivered a lazy, cliché-ridden product with a serious tone that sucks any sense of fun out of the film.
The story opens with a brief retelling of the classic fairy tale, but with one little twist: Before pushing the witch into her oven, young Hansel and Gretel discover they are immune to spells, at least those cast at them. And if you don't think that will be important later, it's obvious you missed the Harry Potter films.
After escaping from the Gingerbread House, the two become renowned witch hunters. Soon, their journeys lead them to the German town of Augsberg where, hired by the mayor to investigate the disappearance of eleven children, Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) prevent Mina (Pihla Viitala) from being burned at the stake as a witch.
This infuriates the local sheriff (Peter Stormare), who attempts to thwart their investigation. His interference complicates the siblings' confrontation with the Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who plans to make her followers immune to fire. And, of course, her plan involves Hansel and Gretel's arrival in town.
The film starts out with several moments of campy humor — a vendor has drawings of the missing children tied to milk bottles, and a geeky fan of the siblings is played for laughs — but any hope for a bit of fun is snuffed out as the sheriff attempts to frame Mina as a witch.
Sure, he's an evil character and his attempt to undermine the witch hunters propels the story, but his motivations are unclear. The script implies a power struggle between him and the mayor, but why he is willing to kill an innocent woman and sacrifice the lives of the missing children is never explained. He's just a cardboard character, one of many in this film, whose behavior lacks any motivation other than to move the story forward.
But the cliché rut gets deeper. To no one's surprise, Hansel falls for Mina, who harbors a secret that is apparent within 10 minutes of her first appearance. The film also introduces a troll named Edward (Derek Mears), who seems to be attracted to Gretel, yet is compelled to serve witches. And, yes, of all the troll names the filmmakers could have chosen, they went with the sparkly vampire one. Yet the script never acknowledges it, despite any groans from the audience.
At this point, it's obvious a dark family secret will be discovered, Hansel will learn that some witches are good (guess who; oh wait, it's not a surprise) and Gretel will discover her mother's heritage. Oh, and Hansel has diabetes from eating all those sweets in the witch's lair as a child, yet his daily injections become important only during the film's climax. Bet you didn't see that one coming.
While all the characters and situations are cliché-ridden, Gretel takes the most abuse from the script. In the beginning, she's smart, sexy and a major ass kicker. Yet midway through the film, she's taken down by the sheriff and his men, despite holding her own with several powerful witches earlier, and needs to be saved by Edward the troll. Then, at film's climax, she's chained to a tree and must be saved by another male character (her brother) before taking out a few witches. While the script does explain her role in Muriel's plans, it's horrid that another capable female character ends up a damsel in distress. Sure, the average filmgoer might not have found Renner chained to the tree as sexy as Arterton, but such a role reversal could have been a fun and interesting twist in an otherwise boring action film.
Most of the cast do what they can with their stereotypical roles. Janssen delivers a few delicious, campy moments when the script allows, and Arterton is good at flipping from ass kicker to damsel in distress as the script dictates. But I had a problem with Renner, who seemed rather bored with the role. His character could have used more swagger and bravado, but he takes the easy route and plays it straight, coming off like he's just interested in collecting a paycheck.
And his performance echoes the main problem with the film. No one has fun with the outrageous concept. The action scenes are loud and wild, but lack the sense of goofiness that should infuse any scene involving a blessed Gatling gun taking out a coven of witches. And the filmmakers might have been hoping the R-rated violence would thrill the audience, but most of the gore scenes are rather mundane. Even the IMAX 3D format couldn't infuse any excitement into the standard blood and gore thrown at the camera.
You might think I went into this film with high expectations, but that's not true. I went in with low expectations. I wanted a Syfy Saturday night monster movie, yet this film couldn't even meet those standards. Actually, I think The Asylum would have done a much better job with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Sure, the effects would have been awful and a few past-their-prime '80s stars would populate the cast, but that film would have been a lot more fun than this big-budget failure.