Review: “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters”

Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola makes the jump to Hollywood and follows in the footsteps of many foreign genre directors before him – delivering an extraordinarily bland and uncharacteristically flat effort that would have worked better as a straight-up parody. “Hansel” is unfortunately a joyless steam-punk and effects-heavy spin on the original Brothers Grimm stories. The presence of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers seems strange as there’s no real comedy (clever or otherwise) on display, beyond the occasional exploding witch which gives the film its R-rating.

Dark spins on fairy tales are hardly nothing new, but films like Terry Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm” were far more inventive and disturbing. Even last year’s problematic “Snow White and the Huntsman” at least had some interesting design work. “Hansel” is oddly lifeless though with all of its actors on autopilot, the script is incredibly thin and awkward, dialogue feels like it was machine manufactured, and even the production design and direction plays flat.

There is nothing to the story beyond the simple concept that Hansel and Gretel grew up to be leather-clad monster hunters decked out with both gadgets and outfits that look like cast-offs from “Van Helsing”. A heavily stylised (and moderately expensive) look prevents the film from indulging any real horror elements, this is an action film first and foremost with violence on its mind. Cue an arsenal of fetishistic medieval weaponry, mostly for those who like gatling guns that can also give you splinters.

The slim story has Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton’s characters hunting witches who have been kidnapping kids in the lead-up to a big ceremony on the blood moon. Said witches are led by Famke Janssen who spends much of her time hidden behind bad make-up and CG mapping to look like a Finnish Goth rocker. All of the thesps say their lines without any real conviction, irony or even joy – even the usually reliable Peter Stromare seems hamstrung in a fairly bland role as an inept sheriff.

The film isn’t sure if it wants to wink at the audience or have them take it seriously, and in occupying the middle ground it fails to satisfy on either front. Every now and then there’s the odd touch that works – Hansel becoming a diabetic due to the witch’s candy house, a troll who actually has more personality than the human stars, and aggressive use of 3D for those who like bodily fluids on their face (and not the fun kind either).

For much of the 85 minute runtime though, this is one generic fight scene after another and even on that front it fails to impress. Action is choreographed in mostly uninventive ways, visual effects are adequate if unexciting, and the editing feels over aggressive to the point that one wonders if a whole different movie has been left on the cutting room floor. Don’t even look for any logic as many of the questions you immediately have about how this duo survives and operates will never get answered.

Pacing is oddly slow, despite the runtime. There’s a couple of clunky one-liners, and the film thankfully keeps them brief in its efforts to be taken seriously. The concept is both laughable and easily dismissible, which means those involved needed to play it up and deliver on the promise, or shatter expectations and give us something daring and intelligent. We get neither as there’s not an ounce of originality, cleverness or wit on display. Drab and dreary, this is a “grim” experience not in name so much as in nature.