After last year saw Abraham Lincoln dragged into the realm of the ridiculous (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), it seems that filmmakers are snapping up all the postmodern repurposings of real life and fairy-tale figures they can get their hands on.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, then, should be a walk in the park for Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola, whose modestly successful Nazi zombie flick Dead Snow made campy fun out of daft material. In this instance, a tone-deaf, oddly joyless script stifles most of the enjoyment, and the cast largely doesn’t seem to much care about the work that they’re doing.
Filmed almost two years ago and delayed for 11 months in order to capitalise on Jeremy Renner’s nascent fame following The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy, it’s baffling that an actor of The Hurt Locker star’s caliber wouldn’t have thought himself above material so meager, given that at the time of shooting he already had 2 Oscar nominations to his name.
Hansel (Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), the brother-and-sister duo of Brothers Grimm lore, have transitioned into the career of professional witch hunting, looking to take down the powerful grand witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) who slaughtered their parents when they were children.
Despite a ripe enough premise, it’s regrettably dull nonsense from almost first minute to last; if Lincoln’s vampire-slaying outing took itself bizarrely seriously last year, Wirkola’s film at least has a little more going for it, adorning the carnage with foul language and exploding gore, even if it too becomes numbing just like everything else.
If the cheapness of it all is supposed to be charming, it resolutely fails; an opening chase sequence between the titular duo and a witch is, like much of the action, incomprehensible edited, and garishly shot in broad daylight – failing to make the most of its rural German shooting location – while employing cheap costume work and dreadful visual effects.
Wirkola aims for camp but overshoots, causing things to feel less like Sam Raimi and more like Uwe Boll. The requisite urgency is only mustered once the film is half-over, briefly realising its promise once a gigantic troll named Edward shows up to squish some villainous heads with his bare fists, the gore splattering all over the screen – yes, you guessed it, in glorious 3D. Edward is all the more appealing because the filmmakers opted to use an ambitious prop suit rather than lazy visual effects.
Other than this brief aside, it’s mostly obvious twists and malnourished ideas, with a string of expletives being thrown in whenever things seem to get really boring; that’s a substitute for wit, apparently. The cast, meanwhile, can’t be sympathised with for signing on to such a poorly scripted project; Renner and Arterton both sleepwalk their way through with the minimum level of embarrassment.
In fact, the only two actors who seem to be having any fun at all are Peter Stormare, hamming it up as a gaudy Sheriff, and Famke Janssen, mostly under heavy make-up as the evil grand witch, who especially seems to be enjoying herself a lot more than the audience probably is.
It all ends on a hook for a sequel that would probably prove far more interesting, but do the filmmakers really deserve it? What should have followed the lead of campy, gory classics like The Evil Dead instead feels like warmed up leftovers from last year’s heinous Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is out now in the US and in UK cinemas on February 27th.
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