Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters


Reviewed by: David Graham

Norwegian writer/director Tommy Wirkola made plenty of fans with his mildly diverting Nazi zombie flick Dead Snow, but the knives seem to be out for this big-budget Hollywood follow-up. Boosted by an A-list cast and excellent practical effects, it's the sort of irreverent nonsense that Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi once specialised in before they joined the 120mins+ club for builders of bloated blockbusters (it's scary to think neither director has delivered anything under the two hour mark this century except from Raimi with 2000's The Gift and the delightful Drag Me To Hell). Despite the script failing to generate as many hearty laughs as it could have - though there's plenty of yuck for yer bucks - this is an imaginative and immensely enjoyable ride that should please big kids and proud geeks alike.

Having narrowly escaped the clutches of a child-eating witch, Hansel & Gretel have grown up into in-demand bounty hounters, their notoriety preceding them in terms of unwanted celebrity status as well as a reputation for disrupting law-sanctioned executions. This is demonstrated upon their arrival in a town bent on burning a seemingly innocent woman, where the sheriff takes a deadly dislike to the pair just as the locals join in toasting their visit. A bigger problem looms on the horizon however in the form of a dastardly plot by the powerful high witch Muriel, who aims to acquire invincibility through ritual sacrifice during the imminent blood moon. Hansel & Gretel must unravel the witch's plans if they hope to safely retrieve the town's children, but secrets from their past could conspire to alter the course of their destinies.

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Beginning with a fantastic re-telling of the original fairy-tale - complete with brilliantly designed eye candy in the shape of the gingerbread house - Wirkola immediately attacks his undertaking with admirable energy, refusing to shy away from the darkness underlying these tales (the witch here is a classic Evil Dead crone) while adding modern sensibilities in the form of elaborately ass-kicking kids as opposed to merely smart ones. The fashionably revisionist mythology occasionally creaks under a few inconsistencies, but for the most part Wirkola has forged a respectful spin on the Brothers Grimm that he runs with for all its worth, infusing the action with several nifty touches that ingeniously exploit the brazen anachronism.

Hansel's Achilles heel is an example of this, in the form of diabetes caused by the witch's attempts to fatten him up; this is a welcome plot device to temper his seeming invincibility as well as a smart acknowledgement of both his childhood ordeal and modern health concerns. The tabloid popularity of our heroes is also a nice gimmick, with Thomas Mann making a sweetly and satirically fawning fan-boy in an affectionate throwback to the Eighties kid sidekicks we all wished we could be growing up.

Looking predictably lethal in leather, on this form Gemma Arterton could well see herself gain a cult following as a fantasy pin-up, with varied roles in the likes of Prince Of Persia, Clash Of The Titans and Neil Jordan's new anti-Twilight vamp epic Byzantium also under her belt. She plays it effectively cool throughout, remaining appealingly unfazed amid all sorts of carnage and proving a physical force to be reckoned with, even though some scenes of her being beaten by gloating men can leave a sour note, disappointingly reducing her to a damsel in distress at times.

Jeremy Renner unfortunately draws a blank in comparison, appearing bored and aloof for much of the duration; he transcends this in the few moments where Hansel's guard is broken down by the lovely Pihla Vitala - a fair maiden indeed whose subtle approach gives their scenes some much-needed chemistry - but otherwise he's as ho-hum a hero as he's previously proven to be in the likes of The Bourne Legacy.

The villains fare much better, with Peter Stormare making a rip-snorting and sniveling human opponent who spends most of the time getting comically beaten to a bloody pulp, and the perennially fabulous Famke Jansen is an alluring and wickedly devious high witch. Wirkola's determination to keep it real has also resulted in one of the most charming examples of puppetry since Jim Henson's Eighties heyday, with a humongous troll character stealing every scene in which he appears and eliciting audible delight from bowled-over viewers. Meanwhile, the steam-punk aesthetic - another element betraying Army Of Darkness's influence - is perhaps under-utilised, being limited mainly to the weapons the pair wield, but it gives Wirkola a suitable excuse to go agreeably OTT during the well-orchestrated combat scenes, where his smoothly pirouetting camera and dead-on editing capture some awesome stunt- and wire-work in all their detail.

The design of the witches has ridiculously ruffled a few feathers in the real-life community, with Wiccan and Pagan practitioners miffed at their representation as ugly goth chicks with worse skin problems than usual, unless they're white witches in which case they get to be ethereally beautiful for all eternity. While Wirkola's villainesses fall short of the unforgettably grotesque menace of Anjelica Huston in Nic Roeg's The Witches or Robert Picardo's Meg Mucklebones in Ridley Scott's Legend - something of a missed opportunity given that this ain't no kids' flick - it's hard to see how anyone could take their panto portrayal so seriously, even with a legless ankle-biter extra running around for no good reason other than the inherent freak-show factor (at least she's being paid for her efforts rather than the money being splurged on special effects).

The f-bombs and one-liners littering the script can come off as cringeworthily desperate rather than bad-ass cool (particularly with an indulgently ill-fitting dialogue nod to The Thing), and the characters could have been a bit more self-deprecating to boost their likability, but at least Wirkola has the good sense to place them in uncompromising positions here and there to emphasize how vulnerable they are beneath all the bravado. None of this matters by the time of the satisfyingly full-on climax, with even the franchise-mooting ending going out on a high note. The film could easily have been toned down for a teen audience, but the surprising level of gore gives the fantasy genre a welcome boot up the backside in favor of adult audiences for a change.

It might not be designed to win any of this season's awards or linger in the memory, but this is a hell of a lot more fun than other recent fairy-tale reboots such as Snow White And The Huntsman or Red Riding Hood. Maybe his involvement with ace Nordic comedy-mystery TV series Hellfjord will afford Wirkola a little more critical respect, but it'd be a shame if he didn't get to pursue further big-budget adventures in Hansel & Gretel's wake. While it's not quite as gloriously, near-Verhoeven-esque dumb as Peter Berg's box-office bomb, this could well prove to be this year's Battleship - an unabashed guilty pleasure for anyone unashamed to disengage their brain for 90 blissful minutes.

Reviewed on: 02 Mar 2013
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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters packshot
The famous brother and sister team take revenge for their childhood trauma.
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Director: Tommy Wirkola

Writer: Tommy Wirkola

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Pihla Viitala

Year: 2013

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Germany, US


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