Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Tommy Wirkola
Writer: Tommy Wirkola
Producer: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Kevin Messick, Beau Flynn
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Thomas Mann, Peter Stormare
Having survived their childhood ordeal to become legendary witch hunters, Hansel and Gretel battle an evil coven that plans to use kidnapped children as a means of gaining immunity to fire.
I backed myself into a corner by scheduling my review of “Hansel and Gretel – Witch Hunters” (“H&G”) to be written directly after my review of “Dead Snow.” With Tommy Wirkola having made both films, I now find my two reviews wanting to plagiarize from each other as much as Wirkola plagiarizes from Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and himself. (He has a certain affinity for drawn-and-quartered in particular when it comes to manners of death.)
While Wirkola continues to unashamedly pilfer the pockets of Raimi and Jackson, the similarities between “H&G” and “Dead Snow” (review here) are so strong that I believe Wirkola has graduated into a discernible style of his own, despite how many components may be borrowed from his idolatrized influences. His mix of the other two directors is more of a specific, personalized formula than it is a slapdash hodgepodge. In fact, “H&G” is so similar in tone to “Dead Snow” that the two films could be confused for fraternal twins.
Years after surviving their familiar gingerbread house ordeal, the titular siblings earn the second half of their moniker by helping a European hamlet recover its kidnapped children from a plotting coven of evil witches. Any more setup than that, and it would be a different movie.
The title reveals everything there is to know before seeing the film. If the words “Hansel and Gretel – Witch Hunters” do not conjure up a specific enough mental image of what is in store, the cover artwork or one-sheet should fill in any gaps. “H&G” knows what it wants to be. It is casual entertainment and never pretends to be anything more than a Brothers Grimm fairytale re-imagined as “Evil Dead” meets hyper-stylized kung-fu action. As long as that is understood at the outset, there is little reason to anticipate disappointment. Looking for satisfaction anywhere other than the immediate senses of sight and sound would be unwise.
Wirkola’s M.O., altered little since “Dead Snow,” is to have “Hansel and Gretel” play with an “Army of Darkness” bent that straddles the border between horror and comedy. There is not as much comedy as might be expected for a film with Will Ferrell as a producer, only enough to serve as a reminder that the movie is never meant to walk a completely straight line. Yes, I lifted the second part of that sentence straight from my other review. If the director can borrow from his previous work, I should be able to do it too.
The narrative then becomes a showcase for high-energy action and sight gags. Establishing plot and characterization are secondary goals to creating visual fireworks. This is a simple approach that worked well enough when it was used in “Dead Snow,” but falls short of completely satisfying this time around.
“H&G” can only be as strong as H&G are themselves, and their character appeal is not as compelling as it could/should be. While not devoid of personality, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are often as stiff as their leather outfits. The blame is not to be laid on their performances, however. Actors can generally only be as good as the material they are given, and action heroes are usually only as good as their one-liners. H&G were already underdeveloped before Renner and Arterton put on their costumes.
In a clever twist on the familiar fairy tale, Hansel has developed diabetes from all of the candy he ate in the gingerbread house as a youngster. Like too many of the fun ideas in “H&G” though, the diabetes angle is not used for much. It gives Hansel a weakness that comes into play exactly one time in the movie, at the most expected moment, but the fact that diabetes is his specific handicap is irrelevant. It could have been anything that incapacitated him for that particular purpose. Gretel’s identifiable trait is the ability to be knocked down, if not completely unconscious. They are legendary figures that should be larger than life, but only exhibit enough character to move things along to the next scene.
The reason why flat characters were acceptable in “Dead Snow” was because they did not matter as much. They were more of a prop and not the centerpiece of the movie. Hansel and Gretel are a means to an end as well, in a way, but they themselves have to be more exciting than what is going on around them. After all, the title is specific that the movie is about these two characters. And the likability and personalities of its main characters are crucial to making the movie work.
Instead, the most interesting things on the screen are the creatures and sets. A coven assembly near the climax showcases a gorgeous assortment of deformed witches and grotesque crones. I imagine the FX shop was given the two-word instruction of “go nuts” and that is exactly what they did. In another smart decision, a troll who becomes a central figure is fabricated with a mix of animatronics and a costumed actor. With so many similar monsters in other films being generated with ones and zeroes, it is refreshing to see this beast take on a different, more realistic look. The only problem with the creatures and ancillary setpieces is that they are more fun than the two figures at the heart of the story. I could not help but look at some of the coven witches and wonder what their stories were. I wish I had felt the same about H&G.
Compared again to “Dead Snow,” “H&G” has more of a stop-start momentum that carries it though the running time. “Dead Snow” had the luxury of explaining the setup in one go at the start of the film. The rest of the movie could then be handed over to mayhem. The story in “H&G” is more revelatory. Character backgrounds are uncovered gradually. Plot points are revealed as various motivations unfold. What ends up happening is that loud scenes of H&G battling witches while fire crashes through walls are sandwiched between slow moments of exposition. When the action stops to regroup the characters or provide information, the less compelling aspects of the movie have time to catch up.
If one is going to make a movie in this vein, Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson are the right two directors to emulate. But Sam Raimi eventually went from his “Evil Dead” roots to the major leagues of “Spider-Man.” And on the other side of the globe, Peter Jackson moved from “Meet the Feebles” to “Lord of the Rings.” At some point, style has to evolve before it grows stale. Tommy Wirkola has a firm grasp of what makes comedy-horror fun to watch, although I feel he may be selling himself, and his audience, short. Hopefully he relies less on his idols and trusts more in his own developing talent to offer something truly unique and spectacular on the next go.
Imagine “Ghostbusters” if Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and the rest of the cast portrayed less distinct characters. The spectacle of battle against Gozer, Slimer, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow might still be fun to watch, but would ultimately be missing its identity. That is what “H&G” is like. It is not without charm, it just lacks a more memorable personality.
Review Score: 60