Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a very pleasant January surprise, considering this film could easily hold its own against blockbuster titles later in the year. It’s got all the makings of a summer movie: over-the-top action, good special effects and solid 3-D. It’s also short, getting the job done and getting out before audiences start poking beyond the thin, glossy veneer. Nevertheless, moviegoers can’t go wrong with Hansel & Gretel.
The young, titular characters of the Brothers Grimm fairytale Hansel and Gretel come to life in this what if adaptation where the two children – after slaying their first witch by burning her alive in her oven – grow up to become professional witch hunters. Starting off their career much in the way the fairytale described – being left in the woods – Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are now adults and seasoned warriors, decked out in leather, and wielding custom weaponry, like rapid-fire crossbows and charge-up tasers. The two are hired by a town to deal with a witch problem; eleven children have disappeared, and the townsfolk suspect witchcraft. Their suspicions prove correct when the Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) appears to snatch a twelfth child for a special ritual that would render witches immune to their greatest threat: fire. Only Hansel and Gretel can put an end to Muriel’s plans, but can they overcome a foe of her power?
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters offers a great concept, and it’s executed well here. Rather than waste time watching the heroes grow up and learn their trade, audiences get what they need to know from those years via a diorama-like opening credits sequence. The film also never takes itself too seriously, instead, offering a fantasy world where monsters are an everyday occurrence, where heroes can take superhuman beatings without getting winded, and where modern-day conveniences, like defibrillators, have steampunk counterparts.
The handling of the characters is also well-done. Hansel and Gretel are genuine badasses, but still relatable to on several human levels, like their occupational numbness to what is repulsive by any standard. So when Gretel gets intestines exploded onto her face, she responds in a blasé complaint, rather than disgust. It’s moments like these peppered throughout that help add a little depth to characters that spend most of the film running, grunting, shooting and killing. The villains are handled just as smartly; the filmmakers made the witches very physical, eschewing wand battles for fisticuffs, making their threat a much more visceral experience.
The violence in the film is surprising, considering the relatively light tone of the rest of the film. People are dismembered or blown up in extremely graphic ways. Heads are shot off. People are smashed. Others are crushed. It’s hard not to marvel at the matter-of-factness of how the filmmakers presented the death. There are no tasteful cutaways when a character dies. Instead, the camera is unflinching, which sometimes sends body parts hurtling directly at audiences. Think twice before taking the young ones out for this action-adventure.
Impressively, this is one of the few films that handles 3-D very well. In addition to offering the standard slight 3-D effects through the movie, audiences will also be treated to all manner of objects flying at their faces, ranging from implements of death to liberal amounts of gore. Viewers will have to make a conscious effort not to duck, and this is exactly the kind of immersion that 3-D is supposed to provide. The only noteworthy disappointment with the 3-D aspect is that the theater probably won’t correct the brightness enough to overcome the dimming effect the 3-D glasses have on the picture. Some of the night scenes will be oppressively dark, and not in a good way.
For everything Hansel & Gretel does right, however, the film feels thin overall. There’s very little character development, and every character trait is utilitarian. It’s a plot-driven movie, but audiences will have little reason to care beyond understanding that witches are evil and need to die. The stakes aren’t very high since witches can be killed by other conventional means even if they succeed in becoming immune to fire. Finally, there’s an unshakeable feeling throughout the movie that it’s been sewn together from scenes cut out of a much larger and denser film. Some moments seem to exist without context, like when characters appear in locations they seemed to be nowhere near a scene prior. Nevertheless, the film is a success despite these criticisms. There won’t be much that audiences recall with excitement once they leave the theater, but Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters still crosses the finish line in a satisfying manner.