19 June 2013

Flash Review: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
Written and Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Starring Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare.

The best idea that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has in its anachronistic arsenal is a clever bit grafted onto the original folk tale: as a child, Hansel was forced to eat so much candy at the witch’s house that he turned diabetic. The movie never does much with this, but it shows lateral thinking superior to the pitch: “Hansel and Gretel with guns go splat creatures wearing weird make-up.”

It was difficult while watching H&G:WH not to imagine what this year might have been like if Sam Raimi decided to direct this instead of his own witch-centered project Oz, The Great and Powerful. Writer-director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) obviously has Evil Dead II on continuous rotation in his Blu-ray player, and if H&G:WH had only gone Raimi-bonkers enough it might have worked. It earns the “R” rating, no doubt, with numerous dismemberments and decapitations and profanity (hesitant on the nudity, but that’s American cinema for ya’), but it drops the full-throttle outrageousness for long stretches and decides its fantasyland of Steampunk, Hammer Horror, and Sam Peckinpah needs to be taken seriously.

The trailers sold something more ludicrous, almost to the point they seemed like gag previews. Six minutes in, when young Gretel shouts to the witch getting roasted in her own oven, “Hot enough for you, bitch?”, you get the signal this will indeed be blatantly nutty. When our adult heroes swagger into the city of Augsburg to help find eleven missing children, they spit out 21st-century butt-kicker lines and it’s a touch wonderful. I was prepared to have a decent time.

Maybe the word “decent” is too appropriate. It implies middle of the road, just okay—and that’s what we get. Even though H&G:WH isn’t a belly flop from its goofy high concept, it’s still forgettable. The one place where it makes an impression is, surprisingly, with practical VFX. The CGI enhancements look awful, but when a contemporary movie is willing to have Famke Janssen wear real witch make-up and feature a giant troll that is 95% man-in-a-suit, I have to applaud. The troll character, Edward, played under fantastic animatronics by Derek Mears, is a delight. He has more chemistry with Gemma Arterton’s Gretel than Jeremy Renner does.

But Renner’s Hansel is the better performer on screen of the fairy-tale duo. Renner is the sort of actor who can not give a damn about a role and still seem like he’s crafting a real character. The silly action lines sound right coming from him. Arterton is acting a bit too obviously. The script doesn’t treat Gretel well, either: this women of action at one point needs rescuing from a pack of rapists, and it is a plain ugly moment that poorly serves the type of heroine the movie wants to sell.

For all its flourishes of wild action and gore, H&G:WH is something I’d rather read about than watch. There’s a fun YA novel in here and I wish the movie were an adaptation of that non-existent source.