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.”
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.
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.
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.