Mon
Jan 28 2013 4:00pm

“If You’re Gonna Kill a Witch, You Set Her Ass on Fire.” Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

“If You’re Gonna Kill a Witch, You Set Her Ass on Fire.” Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

It’s at the point where the townsperson in Ye Olde Village is hocking milk sold in bottles with drawings of missing children tied onto them that you realize just what you signed up for in sitting down to watch Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Which doesn’t mean it’s bad... well, yes it is. It is really bad. But there are odd bits of redemption lingering in its depths that are truly baffling to behold. I should explain:

It’s starts off much as you’d expect: two children led into the woods by their father and seemingly left for dead. They find the candy cottage of a old crone who tries to fatten up the brother for her oven. The little boy and girl manage to defeat the witch and burn her alive in said oven. Then there’s an opening monologue featuring the hilarious title quote above, delivered by grown up Hansel (Jeremy Renner) before a very impressive opening title sequence.

So Hansel and Gretel became witch hunters, and they do it all for a money because you’ve got to make a living somehow when you’re orphaned kids in... wherever they are. It’s not Europe, but it’s not America or anywhere else for that matter. Each character seems to sport an entirely different accent, and the setting is vaguely medieval. Gretel (Gemma Arterton) is clearly the brains of the operation, and her brother is the irascible muscle. He needs shots every few hours because eating all that magic candy as a kid gave him “the sugar sickness.”

“If You’re Gonna Kill a Witch, You Set Her Ass on Fire.” Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

The first half of the movie is painful to get through, with every clichéd punchline, bad stereotype, and sloppy action sequence writer/director Tommy Wirkola could throw in the grand movie blender. The tone seems to be pitched roughly between the Hugh Jackman Van Helsing film and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, but with zero charm and only the barest attempt at wit. Famke Janssen apparently said in an interview that she took her role as the film’s uber-bad to pay off her mortgage, but she’s still giving her all, and even in some terrifying prosthetics. Jeremy Renner seems unable to do more than wink at the screen during those first 45 minutes or so, every line delivered with an extra-sugary layer of sarcasm and irony as he totes one of the most phallic rifles I’ve ever seen on screen. You have to love him for it. (There is an extra-memorable moment where he rolls under a bed to avoid having a conversation with his sister.)

And then something happens halfway through: the film takes a moment to slow down and decide what it’s about. Characters get a little more flesh and blood on their bones, there’s romance and new friendships are formed, and the action only comes when it’s needed. In addition, certain aggravating elements of the original fairy tale (the fact that it is usually the children’s nasty step-mother who commands the father to leave his kids in the forest during winter because she doesn’t want to starve) are addressed and altered. The new Hansel and Gretel myth is keen on giving all of the front and center power to women, which seems more than fair given its premise and focus on witchcraft.

“If You’re Gonna Kill a Witch, You Set Her Ass on Fire.” Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Or, to convey my exact thoughts in the theater at the halfway mark: “Wait, I... I care all of a sudden? What just happened?”

The movie doesn’t morph into diamonds at that point, though. The action sequences are still usually just a minute too long, and there’s a character death that irked because it wasn’t necessary (and was also the death that always occurs in these sorts of films). The dialogue is still comprised of bad one-liners, though the irony seems more appropriate once the tone becomes clear. Hansel and Gretel start to feel more like siblings, like they care for each other and, more importantly, for other people. It is suddenly apparent that they are in need of a new family, since they never looked for another after losing their own.

“If You’re Gonna Kill a Witch, You Set Her Ass on Fire.” Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Deeply flawed, but with something hovering at the center. It is too bad that it takes so long discovering itself, because all of the elements are there and ready. Arterton and Renner play their parts with just enough gravity that they could have been a truly formidable duo, if they’d only been given enough time. It’s mainly an upset because with a little more thought put in, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters could have been one of the first fun action fantasy comedies in a very long time.


Emily Asher-Perrin is pretty sure that she has contracted “the sugar sickness.” You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

13 comments
Dirtycelt
1. Dirtycelt
This movie was exactly what I expected from the trailers. Fun fluff. I can't imagine anyone going into this film with higher expectations than that. My friends and I found it delightful. I appreciated that the attractive female lead didn't have a romantic entanglement...
Constance Sublette
2. Zorra
" ... wherever they are. It’s not Europe, but it’s not America or anywhere else for that matter."
Which seems to be the case with Lost Girl as well. Where in the world is this nameless town, city, whatever, that hosts such a complex parallex of the fae? Sometimes they seem to go to Europe, which indicates that they are in the New World, and in North America, since they speak English. There are flashbacks (with the most risible dialog and costuming ever) to medieval times, which then would be Europe, again, that place over there, while we are (currently) over here.

In a funny way it looks more like Miami than any other city I know -- but then, it certainly isn't Miami -- or is it? With the selkie episode there does seem to be an ocean. But then everybody wears more clothes than are generally worn in Miami -- except for Bo, of course. :)

Love, C.
Thomas Thatcher
3. StrongDreams
I always assumed Lost Girl was set in Seacouver, and the fae moved in when all the Immortals went back to the highlands. Maybe H&G is set in medieval Seacouver.
Chuk Goodin
4. Chuk
Yeah, I don't know where it's filmed and I quit watching halfway through the first season, but Lost Girl seems like it was set in Toronto.
Dirtycelt
5. TomT
Oh good. I expected it to be a fluff popcorn movie and it sounds like that. And the fact that it somehow improves about the halfway point is encouraging. It means I can kick back relax and laugh and have fun for the first half and then perhaps enjoy a bit the 2nd.
Dirtycelt
6. Nicholas Winter
Chuk, Lost Girl is indeed filmed in Toronto. It's certainly the latest of a long list of shows done there including Tek War, Stingray, and one of the Robocop series.
Constance Sublette
7. Zorra
Shot in Toronto, yes, but what is the name of the city in the series? They never tell!

Love, C.
Dirtycelt
8. JasonD
One of the facebook groups I belong to has been railing about this movie because of it being blatantly anti-witch, and Wiccans and Neo-Pagans still are faced with a great deal of persecution from the mainstream community. Does the movie have any positive depictions of witches, or are they all inhuman demon spawn or some such?
Emily Asher-Perrin
9. EmilyAP
@JasonD - There are, in fact, many positive depictions of witches in the movie, though I won't say more for fear of giving away the plot. Indeed, the revelation of good witches is central to the story's main arc. So hopefully that's helpful!
Dirtycelt
10. lecuyerv
I went into the theatre wanting to like this movie. My expectations were for a fun, ahistoric fantasy knockoff of an old children's tale. What I got was a live-action comic book. Which I'm actually ok with.

What I didn't like was contantly having stuff thrown at me during the action scenes. (my theatre only offered the 3D version) All competent characters who weren't the main characters were killed off in as stupid a manner as possible, and the gratuitious nudity ticked me off as much as the excessive and/or gratuitious violence. The plotting was thin and the characters were nothing more than walking one-liners.

In short, I've never been to a movie that worked so hard to make me hate it. Especially when I was pre-disposed to like it.
Dirtycelt
11. asfandancer
I saw one movie with Jeremy (the robot) Renner and he was so wooden and devoid of any personality that I vowed I would never see another movie this guy played in. I'm passing on H&G just because of him.
Dirtycelt
12. Disturbingfurniture
Why doesn everyone lob so much hate at this movie? It was a lot of fun. We are very schizophrenic in our movie viewing: lotsa art/indies/foriegn and a good number of "big dumb American movies" & we see a large number each year. This was a great evening's entertainment. Good effects. Good performances (aside from some accent slips). Good dark humor. Good silly grossness. And an imaginative fantasy world. Why is everyone so down on this?
Dirtycelt
13. S.M. Stirling
The original plot starter (children left in forest because there's no food) was better. Instead of the "emo" revision.

Look, it's medieval Europe, and one of the ways people die is -starving to death-. Hunger and the fear of hunger is an omnipresent fact of life. People really do abandon children if things get bad enough. And sometimes they eat them.

One of the constant elements in genuine old fairy-tales is the fear of starvation, and the closely linked fear of someone taking your food. That's one reason why everyone in them is so suspicious of outsiders.

There just genuinely isn't enough to go around a lot of the time.

Granted this film is totally a-historical Hollyweird land, that's a welcome "shock of the different" in an era in which the risk is obeisity.

That said, I liked the movie.

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