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Non-Review Review: Hansel & Gretel – Witch Hunters

There is a gem of an idea buried in Hansel & Gretel. Indeed, there isn’t too much excavation required to recover it. It lurks near the surface, visible to the naked eye. What would happen if you took a fairy tale and reworked it as a bombastic action adventure, complete with the clichés, archetypes and gimmicks you associate with such films? Hansel & Gretel veers on wry self-parody at points, as if an acerbic take on Hollywood’s fondness for “gritty” reimaginings of familiar concepts. With producers including Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, it’s not too hard to believe that this subversive exploration of genre tropes was explicitly intended as a sly joke at the expense of these sorts of nonsensical and gratuitously violent and aggressive takes on old classics. There are moments where Hansel & Gretel flirts with genuinely post-modern greatness.

Unfortunately, there’s also a sense that the film lacks the will to follow through on that somewhat sarcastic premise, and the result is that the shrewder gags are undermined by a surreal earnestness that seems to ask the audience to accept Hansel & Gretel for nothing more than what it is. The result is a discordant and scattered piece of film, one that seems almost at war with itself.

The hottest adaptation of Hansel & Gretel you have ever seen...

The hottest adaptation of Hansel & Gretel you have ever seen…

It’s hard to know what to make of the film. Is it a parody of the notion of remaking a classic fairytale as an action film, or is it a straight-up attempt to do so? There’s a lot of evidence for both sides of the argument. Indeed, the opening sequence almost plays as a genuinely dark comedy skit, replaying the legend that everybody knows. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods. They find a house made of candy. They go inside and there is a witch, who plans to eat them – as witches do, apparently.

At this point, the film branches off from the source material and inserts all manner of generic action movie clichés with a wry smirk on its face. The original story has Gretel outwitting the witch through a cunning and well-executed plan. Apparently, that isn’t quite what the movie has in mind. Here, Gretel overpowers the witch through liberal application of a sharp knife. He then burns the witch alive and utters a line that could easily have come from Sylvester Stallone. “Hot enough for you?” she taunts, at which point the credits start.

Yes, despite everything you know about history, this is exactly what it looks like...

Yes, despite everything you know about history, this is exactly what it looks like…

The movie has a reasonable amount of fun juxtaposing our childhood stories with cheesy action clichés. Apparently spotting a witch is as simple as a medical check-up. When a member of the community is accused of witch craft, Hansel is able to make a definitive call simply by inspecting her mouth like a trained medical professional. “She’s clean!” he earnestly declares, as if the movie threatens to turn into a surreal medical or contagion-related thriller.

It might not be the height of wit, but it is quite surreal to hear Hansel and Gretel use naughty words – existing, as they do, as iconic figures in childhood literature. At one point, Gretel brandishes a crossbow like a shotgun, threatening to blow her target’s “f%&king brains out.” Like so many action movie heroes, Hansel carries around the scars of his youth, and nurses an affliction that explains his obligatory bitter outlook. In this case, the gingerbread house gave him diabetes.

Which witch?

Which witch?

These are weird moments where it’s clear the movie is having a bit of fun at the expense of familiar action movie clichés. This is the second movie in three days where I have seen a bitter and jaded protagonist who must regularly stick a syringe into his leg, nursing a malady that partially explains how he became a hollow shell of a man. The other was Welcome to the Punch, and it seems quite clear that Hansel & Gretel is playing with that sort of familiar plot device. After all, despite his tough talk, it looks like Hansel is injecting insulin.

The problem arises when we reach the clichés that don’t seem to exist as parody, and seem to be played entirely straight. There’s lots of action sequences film in gratuitous slow motion, and the 3D doesn’t seem as much a parody of the format as a straight-up example. The evil witches have to perform an obligatory evil ceremony at a specified time, and out heroes are key to that secret occult function. There is a lot of gratuitous violence, and only some of it seems like a parody of the sort of nonsense we see in films like this.

This is his boom stick...

This is his boom stick…

The weapons that Hansel and Gretel carry are obviously absurd and ridiculous for the time period in question, but the film plays it all entirely seriously. There’s no winking at the audience. Those weapons might seem a tad surreal, but they seem to be included because they justify a lot of blood splatter rather than because it’s fun to play out familiar action movie clichés in a very strange setting. The fact that these elements are played entirely straight undermines the obviously parodic elements that do work.

The film is also undermined by the fact that neither Jeremy Renner nor Gemma Arterton seem to be in on the joke. Arterton is especially terrible, even if it is disappointing that Hansel & Gretel reduces Gretel to a hostage. Arterton doesn’t have the sort of charm that an absurd role like this requires, and she underplays the role. Renner does slightly better, but he doesn’t seem too engaged with the film. He does sarcastic and bitter quite well, but he doesn’t sell the tiny character arc that Hansel has. Instead, he just seems like he doesn’t really want to be there, which works well enough for most of the film.

Anything of note?

Anything of note?

Famke Janssen is really the only member of the primary cast who seems to be having any fun, playing the movie’s primary antagonist. Of course, the bad guy is shallow and underdeveloped, but Janssen makes the most of her generically evil monologues and clumsy exposition. She even makes bland bad guy talk like “your whore of a mother” sound like it is uttered with some measure of conviction. Janssen seems to be genuinely enjoying the film, and it seems like she’s in on the joke – gleefully overplaying her role. Unfortunately, the script isn’t too bothered with her character, so she can’t do too much to salvage the film.

Hansel & Gretel is far too uneven to wholeheartedly recommend. It doesn’t even seem sure of what it wants to be. Is it a silly action movie, or is it a clever deconstruction of one? It seems like the film attempts a false compromise and – as a result – we end up with terribly disjointed and uneven finished product, albeit one that has at least a few ideas of note that get lost in the shuffle.

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