Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters packs one out-of-left-field surprise, but it arrives during the opening credits, and the delicious twists dissipate as the film trudges along.
Here’s the shock: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, collaborators on such subversively absurd comedies as Anchorman, Step Brothers and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby receive co-producer credits, presenting the horror/fairy-tale hybrid through their Gary Sanchez Productions banner. For a moment, we get a glimmer of hope that H&G will approach its Grimm-twist mash-up with a welcome wink and a macabre sense of humor. You know, the kind of “we’re in on the joke” nod that should accompany any movie brazen enough to call itself Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Isn’t this why you hire Tommy Wirkola, the writer-director who dared to introduce Nazi zombies in the cult-horror effort Dead Snow?
Alas, H&G commits the sin of taking itself too seriously … which is to say, it injects even a modicum of seriousness into a premise that begs to high-dive off the deep end of irrationality with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek. Far short of being dismissed as a failure, H&G just isn’t as much fun as you’d imagine.
The title sells the story. After their legendary candy-house encounter with a vicious witch, survivor siblings Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) make a living as bloodthirsty mercenaries hired by terrified townsfolk who report missing children and fear the latest witch infestation. Our leather-clad bounty hunters are extremely busy as of late, for powerful Muriel (Famke Janssen) and a coven of killers are collecting sacrificial lambs for a rare blood moon, and only The Avengers … er, Hansel and Gretel can nip the plan in the bud.
Arterton does what she can to liven the movie’s dour tone, channeling her inner Han Solo to turn Gretel into a stone-cold bitch warrior who practically barks “Ain’t nobody got time for that” as she evades trolls, eviscerates witches and fends off a predatory sheriff played by Peter Stormare. (Because whom else would you hire to play a lecherous sheriff in a movie called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters?) Arterton shows she’s better equipped to play an action lead than the flimsy second banana – where she floundered in Prince of Persia and even Quantum of Solace. Her spunk actually balances out Renner, who does cool instead of charismatic in a misguided effort to push the film toward a legitimacy it doesn’t earn.
Structurally, Gretel neglects to come up with much beyond its concept, which puts a hardened spin on the classic Grimm fairy tale. It’s perfectly natural to want to imagine Hansel and Gretel channeling an inner rage following their near-fatal encounter with a sorceress. But H&G suffers from a saggy midsection as Wirkola figures out how to pad his barely-90-minute film until he can crank up the heat for a Rambo-esque finale. Time-killers range from a love interest for Hansel (played by Pihla Viitala) to a gentle giant named Edward, who befriends Gretel and proves useful when the chips are on the table.
The director, however, is better equipped at ladling out buckets of blood than he is at maintaining suspense or tension. Gretel delivers on the promise of gore, as limbs are torn from bodies and messengers explode after eating combustible worms, spraying tavern patrons with internal organs. The spray of crimson blood cuts through the grim production scheme (no pun intended) and drab visual palette. The movie's often mean and nasty, but that's really its saving grace. “That was awesome,” screams a young Hansel and Gretel groupie after a grisly kill, and you might agree, of that’s your thing.
I’m not saying there isn’t franchise potential here. Never forget, even Clash of the Titans inspired a sequel. Maybe this is the start of a series. We can only hope future installments realize the inherent ludicrousness of the given premise. And at the very least, if H&G finds an audience, expect to see another recognizable figure from stories past hunting werewolves, possibly as early as 2014.