Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow was a fun movie that didn’t take itself too seriously. Despite laying on the horror references pretty thick, it’s one of the better zombie films in recent memory, even if its subject matter is little more than one long, sustained note. Wirkola continues this trend with Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, a film that knows what type of movie it wants to be but never manages to capitalize on it. Or on anything, really.
The film opens with the requisite backstory: Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel’s (Gemma Arterton) father takes them into the woods and seemingly abandons them, causing them to stumble upon the famed Gingerbread House. After noshing a bit on some candy, they walk inside and are beset upon by a witch whom they eventually burn alive. Many years later, Hansel and Gretel are now witch hunters, and after saving Mina, a woman (Pihla Viitala) accused of being a witch by the Sheriff of Augsburg (Peter Stormare), the duo are tasked by the town’s mayor (Rainer Bock) with saving the eleven children that have recently disappeared. In the process, they discover a far more sinister plan, heralded by the arrival of a Blood Moon and spearheaded by Muriel (Famke Janssen), a grand witch who knows more about Hansel and Gretel’s past than they do.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters has one real thing going for it: violence. Brandishing delightfully anachronistic weapons comprised of shotguns, Gatling guns, and conveniently modified crossbows, the tenacious duo spend most of the film’s 88 minute running time traipsing through the forests of Bavaria killing witches. Wirkola gives us plenty of gore and blood to chew on, running the gamut from crushed heads to bodies dismembered by razor wire in gruesome detail, but much of this is at the expense of a truly engaging story.
As the movie plods along, plot points are revealed quickly, serving as little more than a means to get Hansel and Gretel up and running on their next quest, while characters disappear quickly or reappear where convenient. It never feels organic, with each beat serving as little more than a means to set up more witch hunting. This isn’t a complaint so much an observation, but the violence – and therefore the primary draw of the film – is bogged down by shoddy CGI and distracting 3-D, the latter of which served absolutely zero purpose. Most of the film takes place in small spaces or forests, resulting in the technology serving as little more than a means to have arrows and bullets fly around in slow-motion before jumping out of the screen.
Plenty of comedic moments are attempted throughout, with Renner’s Hansel uttering enough one-liners to elicit a half-sincere chuckle from time to time, but poor dialogue lost in a muddled script renders most of it laughable in the worst possible way. Beyond Derek Mears’ portrayal of the witch-serving troll Edward, none of the actors could bring life to these dull, uninspired characters. It’s the first movie I’ve seen that actually wastes Peter Stormare, whose role of the Sheriff is so over-the-top and inconsequential that you don’t miss him or his ridiculous moustache when he leaves the film for good.
Deep down amidst the muck and the mire that is Wirkola’s film is something that could have easily been this year’s sleeper hit. Unfortunately, instead of a violent, over-the-top, and most importantly, funny take on a classic fairy tale, we’re given a dumbed-down action flick filled with expository dialogue, voice-overs, and enough CGI blood to make your eyes hurt. The elements were there, but at no point were they seized upon to make Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters anything beyond a hollow exercise in repetition.
Also Hansel has diabetes, which is way funnier than it has any right to be.