– Summary –
Director : Tommy Wirkola
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Pihla Vitalla, Derek Mears, Thomas Mann, Peter Stormare, Ranier Bock, Bjørn Sundquist, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Zoe Bell.
Approx Running Time : 88 Minutes
Synopsis: Orphaned as children and only barely surviving the evil clutches of a cruel witch, siblings Hansel and Gretel take up hunting witches for bounty. Inevitably, they are led into a showdown with a powerful Grand Witch, who wants to use the onset of a rare blood moon to give the supernatural creatures even more power than before.
What we think : Violent, kinetic, depraved updating of the Hansel and Gretel story, this film never once stoops to pretension or higher-than-thou film-making. This is cornball cheese fantasy at its most slick, a grab-bag of death and brutality, coupled with some wry scripting and candy-wrapped performances that elevate the problematic eschewing of logic and reason well above anything serious critics should consider lowbrow. This is popcorn munching entertainment at its most frivolous, and it’s a blast.
Something wicked this way explodes.
By it’s very title, you know what to expect. Reviewing this film with anything other than ones tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek will only lead to disaster from a critical perspective. A film like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is beyond the scope of coherent criticism – it’s a genre film first and foremost, playing to a crowd to whom the idea of medieval bounty hunters modeled on the mythical story of twin children escaping the clutches of an evil, candy-house-living witch is merely the window-dressing for something of larger scope. Much like 2012’s equally insane historical-horror romp, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Hansel & Gretel’s horror roots and glad-handing action ethics will have the hootenanny cheering and the intellect diminishing – if only for the briefest time – as you thoroughly enjoy this romp. I don’t often call a film a “romp” but that’s exactly what Hansel & Gretel is – a bloody, violent, energetic remix of ye olde worlde and modern sensibility, the kind of film you’d have had Bram Stoker been hopped up on amphetamines when he wrote Dracula. As I said, by it’s very title you shouldn’t be expecting anything serious, nor should you expect literary genius: this is, after all, an adult-brand fantasy that delights in it’s lack of pomposity, and excess of action. That being said, there’s still some reviewing to be done here, and I’m man enough to admit that, even with its terrific kineticism and gangbusting direction, some kind of constructive critical eye needs to be cast over the whole thing just for a sense of equality. After all, if I can review Oscar winning masterpieces and still find fault, why not a film like this?
After being orphaned as children, siblings Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) stalk the European countryside, hunting and killing witches for bounty – they arrive at Augsburg, to stop the local sheriff (Peter Stormare) from killing a suspected witch with no proof. Mina (Pihla Vitalla) takes a liking to Hansel, while Gretel begins to uncover the true source of witchery in the town – a powerful and cruel black witch named Muriel (Famke Janssen), who has been stealing children in order to fulfill a prophecy which would see witches resistant to flame. Which means no more burning at the stake. Together with a young fan named Ben (Thomas Mann), Hansel and Gretel go up against the gathered covens of evil witches to stop the prophesy from coming true, and in doing so, uncover a secret about their lost parents that will change them forever.
Big dumb action films don’t come much bigger, dumber, or more fun than Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Unlike the majority of stupid genre action films, which usually never quite live up to the hype (or expectations), Hansel & Gretel manages to overcome the Van Helsing idiocy I was expecting and stride firmly into popcorn pulp entertainment that succeeds more often than it fails. Critics will point to the ribald script, the excessive gore or the imbalance of character over action, the latter of which is an underdeveloped arc for both lead roles, as significant deficiencies in the film warranting scorn and derision – those critics obviously missed the point of the intent by director Tommy Wirkola to simply shut up, switch off the brain, and have a good time. This was the way I went into the film, and I did have a great time. And my review will mirror my feelings based on this expectation.
Where Wirkola has succeeded moreso than Bebmanbetov’s Abraham Lincoln pastiche is in the flat-out action and sense of heightened reality – instead of Lincoln’s hyper-reality – that gives the movie a gritty, real-world feel. You can feel the grit between your toes, as it were. Thanks largely to the stunning production design, Hansel & Gretel’s visual aesthetic cannot be faulted. Costumes, props, set design and even lighting are superb, nigh faultless, and if there was ever a fine example of world building on film, this is it. Even the uber-fantasy elements, such as Edward the troll, seem believable, as if they’re not mythical creatures but ones of historical fact. What I’m trying to say (poorly) is that Hansel & Gretel has a sense of grounded reality, even in light of its inherent un-reality, and that makes it more approachable as a film.
Where the film stretches into fantasy is its approach to the laws of physics. The human body can only handle so much physical punishment, yet this film treats every fight, action beat and visual effect like the WWE – punches are frighteningly brutal, the body smashes of Edward the troll are bloody and gory, and people fly through the air and explode with every gunshot, headkick and bodyclobber. The witches themselves are nasty, super-fast, super-strong foes over which there is no easy victory. Considering neither Hansel nor Gretel have any significant supernatural power (other than witches magic not working on them), their takedown of each witch they encounter borders on last-gasp success instead of an easy mark. These witches aren’t the slow-moving Disney versions – these bitchy witches are badass. And it’s only people of extraordinary courage and skill who can take them out.
Even the cast fit into this film with ease. Jeremy Renner has that steel-eyed glare down pat, the action-star cliche he honed on lackluster efforts like The Bourne Legacy, and more attuned blockbusters like The Avengers. Hansel isn’t a very deep character, nor is the arc he’s given really that well develped, but Renner takes (and gives) a punch like Arnie on steroids so the film’s got that going for it. Also flowing in testosterone is Gemma Arterton, whose Gretel is a far cry from the demure, candy-gobbling character I read about in books as a child. Arterton takes a punch even better than Renner, and she needs to, because her on-screen sparring with resident human Bad Guy Peter Stormare is one of this films’ many delights. Stormare can play creepy sadistic villains in his sleep, and he dons the garb of boo-hiss caricature like a well-worn glove. Famke Janssen spends most of the film with her visage hidden by some highly unattractive, yet startlingly effective, makeup effects (obviously nobody thought an Oscar for this film in that area might be warranted!) , and does a terrific job as the films’ primary antagonist. Thomas Mann’s gibbering provides some comic relief as Ben, a wannabe witch hunter who ends up teaming up with the titular pair to track down and eliminate the witch coven from their country, although one suspects his role is purposely limited to provide more potential for a sequel. Smaller roles to Pihala Viitala, Ranier Bock and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal flesh out the cast roster to allow the larger canvas to develop.
Although I have no statistics to back this up, it’s a fair bet that the majority of feature film directorial debuts end up being critical – if not always commercial – successes. Two that spring immediately to mind without Google are Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, and Aaronofsky’s Pi. This is usually because a debut feature will be a director’s passion project; the story they’ve dreamed of telling since before they picked up a camera, and a story they’ve worked, reworked, and reworked again through the years, until they can see it unspool in their minds eye exactly as it ends up turning out. Such passion and dedication to a single story usually results in a successful debut – it’s the follow up which suffers, typically. Wirkola’s debut feature film is a whirligig of sound and fury, a pitch perfect action-horror slobberknocker with dashes of humor, pinches of romance, and an undercurrent of franchisement. I say “franchisement” like it’s a real word, and it is because I made it up just then. It would seem obvious that the film-makers have kept one eye on potential sequels the entire time they were making this film, and the more cynical critic inside me might scorn that approach, but one gets the sense that there’s more fun to be had as this series progresses. I guess if you’re planning on sequels, then deficiencies in the story can be rectified in future installments. At least I hope so.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was never going to win awards for depth of story or characters, and to expect more from a film like this is just asking to be disappointed. Inevitably, jaded critics will rip this film apart as yet another example of the death of modern cinema, but I like to think it’s something more akin to the Hollywood-meets-Dan-Brown pulp fiction genre. Fast paced, furiously edited and filled with style to burn as logic never gets a look-in, Hansel & Gretel is deliriously satisfying in the same way that fast food sates a hunger. Yes, it’s cardboard, the high doesn’t last long (and let’s not forget the interminable gut-ache which comes later) and the wrapping more often than not is better than the contents, but for some people that’s all they ask of a film. If that’s you, then this film will rock your brain like nothing else. Somebody seeking fine dining should look elsewhere.