“Never enter a house made of candy”
The thing that’s so disappointing about Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is the rather ingenious premise at its back. Taking the classic Grimm Brothers tale and expanding on the results of what escaping an evil witch in the woods as children by burning her alive in an oven is so simple and obvious that it’s a wonder no one had thought of it before (not counting The Brothers Grimm). Credit Norwegian writer/director Tommy Wirkola for seeing the potential in transforming these scared kids with renewed confidence and vitriol at a time of witch hunts and stake burnings into badass trackers for hire. The fact he’s also the creator behind the well-received Nazi/zombie romp Dead Snow only adds to the appeal. What then went so horribly, horribly wrong?
My only answer is Hollywood. “Discovered” by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay‘s shingle Gary Sanchez Productions, Wirkola’s material may simply have fallen into the wrong hands. I’ve read the filmmaker in an interview saying how he didn’t want the comedy so overt that it devolved into spoof—something I feel Sanchez would have been a perfect fit to handle if it did. Instead he speaks of inspiration from early Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson—two horror maestros who included wonderful streaks of humor in their films—and a desire for his finished product to be darker and more action-oriented than anything else. Frankly, this want to dissolve lines and be so many things at once hurts the end product’s ultimate success.
At only 88-minutes, Hansel & Gretel‘s escapades in Augsburg, Germany are brisk and streamlined to the point where all character development is moot. We meet the witch hunters as young children rustled awake and into the woods by their father when it was too dangerous to remain at home. The two wander into a small cabin made of candy and unwittingly stumble upon a career path they never imagined would be theirs after Mom and Dad disappeared. And then in one jump cut “many years later” we see them all grown up, still seeking vengeance against the supernatural kind that once tried to eat them. A few newspaper clippings are supposed to show us their bloodlust and heroics before they’re unceremoniously caught up in their toughest battle yet.
Hansel (Jeremy Renner) wouldn’t be averse to murdering every woman accused of witchcraft while his sister Gretel (Gemma Arterton) keeps them honest by a need for evidence. It’s a fun dynamic of checks and balances between his acerbic wit and her levelheaded intellect. But before we can get to know them we’re whisked into the woods courtesy of a team of rogues sent by the town’s ill-spirited Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare) and are quickly introduced to our main villain, Muriel (Famke Janssen). So the hunters arrive, show compassion for a falsely accused witch named Mina (Pihla Viitala), watch the sheriff’s bumbling idiots get killed by the witch stealing the town’s children, and eventually get separated before stumbling upon a lair holding fated attachments to their past and present.
There is barely enough air to breathe before the siblings face off against Muriel and her grotesque friends so conveniently dispatched of that you can’t help laugh at the absurdity of it all. Obvious revelations are made, new allegiances are set, and an end is met with such a whimper that it carries nothing but the seeds for future installments. No true closure exists because we never found a reason to invest in the mission in the first place. The only thing we learn through its fairy tale convolutedly turned on its head by new expository explanations is why Hansel and Gretel are immune to witchcraft and why they were left alone so long ago. Muriel and the rest are expendable pawns on the road to the completion of a prologue I’d be amazed ever received a continuation.
Wirkola had the right idea wanting to turn his concept into a short film before McKay told him there were “franchise possibilities”. There isn’t enough in its current form to warrant the expanded runtime when there’s no real danger for our heroes after shifting into Wizard of Oz territory’s lights and darks. The film’s major revelation shouldn’t be a surprise, Hansel and Gretel should have been introduced fully aware of their heritage, and they should have been left successful bounty hunters for the duration instead of conflicted, lost souls in search of true purpose. Where the movie ends is where it should have begun, the badly forced plot twist no more than a factual detail that gives the hunters more power.
I say this because as far as the action goes, Wirkola knows what he’s doing. The witches—especially Janssen’s Muriel—are unparalleled in strength to the point our heroes need to cheat to win and have their bruises and cuts cured by other forms of witchcraft. Add in the lovable troll Edward, the precociously obnoxious wannabe sidekick Ben (Thomas Mann), and the gorgeous European locations Wirkola fought to retain and this could have been over-the-top brilliance. So many of Renner’s lines make it feel like the zaniness will prevail until Arterton’s overwrought empathy takes us back to feigned dramatic gravitas. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters needed to be complete and utter nonsense that knew it was exactly that. Unfortunately it ceaselessly tries to be more and ends up a disaster instead.
 Photo credit: David Appleby
Left to right: Gemma Arterton plays Gretel and Jeremy Renner plays Hansel in HANSEL & GRETEL WITCH HUNTERS, from Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. © 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: David Appleby
Famke Janssen plays Muriel in HANSEL & GRETEL WITCH HUNTERS, from Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. © 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 Photo credit: David Appleby
Peter Stormare plays Sherriff Berringer (far left), Rainer Bock plays Mayor Engelman (center), and Pihla Viitala plays Mina (second from far right) in HANSEL & GRETEL WITCH HUNTERS, from Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures. © 2013 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.