Film Review | Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

A film that’s as preposterous as its title suggests deserves at least some respect for its honesty. But is this fairy-tale re-imaging as satisfying as it could have been?

Savage siblings: Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner wreak fairy-tale revenge in this violent ‘sequel’ to the Hansel and Gretel story.
Savage siblings: Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner wreak fairy-tale revenge in this violent ‘sequel’ to the Hansel and Gretel story.

If there's one thing you can't accuse Hansel & Gretel: With Hunters of, it's false advertising. From its preposterous title and premise to its unapologetically anachronistic depiction of the medieval world in which it is set, director Tommy Wirkola's re-imagining of the perennial children's tale definitely does what it says on the tin.

And how.

The problem is that the high-concept genre in which the films works in depends on you to be impressed by the 'adult twist' at its core and sadly, the remixed folk/fairy tale has become something of a Hollywood staple of late.

It's hardly an illustrious new tradition, either: Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland was a muddled cartoon and more recently, the double-bill of Snow White-inspired features - Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman - failed to fire up the imagination (though they very much made ends meet at the box office).

But still, going into this schlocky revenge epic with an open mind could be helpful: it announces itself as trash, so if you take it as trash you won't be disappointed.

Its central premise is also, strangely, plausible. You can hardly blame the titular siblings for pursuing a witch-hunting career in their adult life. Recall the original story: how would you react if you barely managed to escape the clutches of evil witch intent on roasting you alive? You'd want to waste every single of their specimen off the face of the earth, that's how.

And that's exactly what Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) make themselves experts of: lending a helping hand to sleepy medieval villages plagued by supernatural scourges.

But when a particular town reveals itself to be especially vulnerable to attacks by witches, the siblings appear to have bitten off more than they can chew as, cutting to the root of the matter, they discover that Muriel (Famke Janssen), the hag in question, might know a thing or two about their past... and why exactly they were left to die in the woods by their father all those years ago.

The Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola has garnered some cult-movie credentials following his first bona-fide debut: 2009's Dead Snow, in which a troupe of zombie Nazi officials terrorise a group of young travellers journeying through Norway's snow-capped terrain. There is of course something of that kind of exploitation-horror at play here, but you get the feeling that Wirkola is not quite as comfortable conforming to the Hollywood mould.

Nobody expected this to be a subtle, fine work of art. Actually, the chief pitfall of 'Hansel & Gretel' is that it doesn't push itself as far enough into the kind of trashy territory that would lend it some gruff vitality.

Instead, with its violence pared down to a '16' rating and its plot shoe-horned into a standard Hollywood rhythm, there are only standard action-movie thrills to be enjoyed here, not subversive ones.

But still, there's an undeniable glee to seeing Renner, Arterton and Janssen (especially Janssen) ham it up for the cameras, and the devil-may-care attitude to historical context is an irresistible bit of mischief (watch out for the Wild-Bunch-like gatling gun shoot-out towards the end).

Some of the lo-fi charm suggested by Wirkola's previous work is still evident in the far-from-lush costuming and cinematography, too. The medieval towns and their inhabitants are rickety in a way that only the best B-movies can be: seemingly assembled on a shoe-string budget that, funnily enough, is appropriate for the kind of disease-ridden squalor it's meant to illustrate. But it's the costume work on Muriel and her minions that is bound to provide the biggest nostalgic thrill: from some angles, their masks look as though they could have been purchased from a Valletta stall come carnival-time.

Had it toned down its attempts at big-Hollywood CGI, 'Hansel & Gretel' could have joined the ranks of those dubious bargain-bin 'classics' that go down a treat when consumed with a large group of friends, plied with junk food and soused with alcohol. As it stands, it's a sometimes-satisfying but otherwise charmless contribution to an already-exhausted sub-genre du jour.