I cannot, for the life of me, imagine a movie more limply marketed than Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. I have a lot of friends who totally wet themselves over movies like this: protracted and inherently stupid reimaginings of classic tales, played with humor, ultraviolence and anachronistic fetish. The only thing better than an action movie starring the original Hansel & Gretel is an action movie starring the original Hansel & Gretel wielding tasers, mini-guns and crossbows that shoot every which way at once. In the 1800s. And none of these friends seem excited to watch Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a sparky new action/horror/fantasy hybrid that’s much more fun than the posters – which promise that that one Avengers guy will show up, and little else – have promised.
This kind of movie is to be expected from Tommy Wirkola, a Norwegian filmmaker whose 2009 feature, Dead Snow, was a chunky explosion of Nazi zombie nonsense with more verve than actual movie to its credit. I admired his dedication to practical gore and old-fashioned scary fun, but Dead Snow didn’t have enough plot to fill a Public Service Announcement. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is very much more of the same. The storyline is about as barebones as a Hollywood release will allow, but pumped full of overblown action sequences, cartoonish humor and guys who explode into a meaty pile of guts and bugs which nevertheless barely raises an eyebrow at the local tavern. It’s lowbrow, it knows it, and that makes it a nice, kind of tawdry fun.
Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton star as Hansel and Gretel, respectively, who were suckered into a candy house as children, vanquished the evil witch who tried to eat them, and have spent the ensuing decades killing supernatural women at every turn. That these creatures are all, basically to a one, women is the film’s most frustrating aspect. I don’t sense any genuine hate in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. It feels more like the sexism is an accidental by-product of obsessively mythologizing disparate fairy tales in which, yes, witches were more or less uniformly female. Yes, Jeremy Renner beats the living hell out of them, even when they’re chained up by the neck. But so does Gemma Arterton, and the witches being assaulted are all genuinely, proven-by-the-text evil, and there are, we eventually discover, other, nicer witches within the world of the film. That doesn’t make it okay, and Arterton does of course wind up kidnapped by the end of the movie, but it all feels incidental enough to accept as an off-shoot of the film’s anarchistic nature, provided you’re willing to mentally note that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters clearly wasn’t thought out very well, and anyone in the audience who seems to be really grooving on that violence should be avoided at all costs on the way to the parking lot.
The plot is simple, and like the premise itself, fairly reminiscent of The Brothers Grimm, Terry Gilliam’s last attempt at a mainstream studio product that, likewise, felt historically inaccurate, broadly comic and dark as midnight despite blockbuster aspirations. Hansel and Gretel have been hired by a town to save a group of kidnapped children from the supernatural. Peter Stormare, as in The Brothers Grimm, plays a disapproving authority figure. They explore the woods, fight a bunch of demons, learn a valuable lesson or two, and kill stuff with the zeal of a Robert Rodriguez movie. Those kills are inventive, lively and absurdly violent. Many a head gets removed over the course of the film. Many an elaborate, disgusting creature design shows up on camera. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters clearly employs computer-generated visual effects, but much of the aesthetic feels very hand-made, making the atmosphere feel genuinely historic, even at its most fantastical, and that’s a welcome reprieve from the usual green-screen CGI assaults on the senses.
There’s not much going in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. The plot is predictable, and the characters are exaggerated to heroic clichés, but at least Renner and Arterton look great in their outfits and are plausible action gods. Arterton in particular steals the film as a strong, thoughtful, formidable action heroine who, yes, is eventually victimized, but at the very least kicks her own fair share of ass and only gives the time of day to a guy who, by all rights, could have been one of the trolls in Ernest Scared Stupid. She’s a different kind of heroine, and more than earns her action cred with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
It’s stupid, but it’s a decent kind of stupid, one that invites you to share in the clearly ridonkulous conceit of the film while hanging back just far enough to laugh at yourself for laughing. So you get to laugh twice at the same time. That’s very nice of them, isn’t it? Buy a ticket, have fun, then read some Camille Paglia or something just to even yourself out after the unfortunate and, I suspect, unintentional subtext. You’ll be glad you did.