March 2, 2013 by Adam Brannon
2013 is the year of the fairy-tale and the year of the witch, or so it looks that way from what seems to be a never-ending bombardment of films related to the two age-old topics. This year sees the release of Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer as well as Sam Raimi’s Oz: The Great & the Powerful and whilst the latter has opened to mixed reviews, it is Bryan Singer’s effort which really looks like it’ll sparkle.
Sat between these two behemoths is the critical and somewhat commercial failure, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, but is it as bad as the reviews would have you believe? Let’s find out.
The fairy-tale of Hansel & Gretel is as well-known as Jack & the Beanstalk and to some extent the story in the Wizard of Oz, but films of this classic have been limited to low-budget television movies because finding the audience for such a difficult genre is not to be underestimated.
Here however, Tommy Wirkola directs his first English-language film with some degrees of success, though, a few niggling factors stop it from being the success it could’ve been. In a darker tale than perhaps we’re used to with a story such as this, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton star as Hansel & Gretel respectively and for the most part, fulfil their roles well as they battle numerous dark witches in a plot which never really gets to grips with the genre it is trying to be.
Herein lays the problem, do you direct the fairy-tale genre as a family comedy or as something a little darker? Clearly director Wirkola has had his work cut out to find the balance between the two and the result is confusing, he has ended up with a 15 certificate which mixes comedy with a bloodbath that wouldn’t look out of place in a Quentin Tarantino picture; it really is that over-the-top. The use of swear-words also feels out of place, like they’re there just to shock rather than add anything to the film’s narrative.
Hansel & Gretel have grown up deciding to kill witches after they were left abandoned in the woods by their father. To cut a long story short, they are captured by a witch and forced to work for her; whilst doing this, Hansel develops ‘sugar sickness’ (diabetes) from all the candy he is forced to consume and must inject himself often. After killing said witch, they flee and the story begins; with them being hired to kill witches who have stolen children from a small town to allow them to become immune to fire; their major weakness.
It’s an interesting take on the story and Famke Janssen plays the wicked grand witch brilliantly, she manages to be both endearing and rightly terrifying in the same scene, though this is helped with the prosthetics used to alter her face. The other actors, including the main two are a little uninspired, especially Arterton who looks positively bored with the work she’s been given. In saying that, Renner isn’t much better and the majority of the film suffers as a result. In fact, you’ll probably be rooting for Janssen’s Muriel to succeed in her evil plot.
Thankfully, the special effects are very good, although I was expecting a little more witch-on-witch action, a la Harry Potter. Atli Orvarsson’s score is excellent and a real highlight of the film. The music in the brilliant opening credits is fantastic.
Overall, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a solid but uninspiring adaptation of a fairy-tale which was never meant for the big screen. Director Tommy Wirkola has obviously tried very hard to create a film which caters for most palates and whilst the score, special effects and acting from Famke Janssen are all top notch, the confusing mish-mash of genres and hammy acting from Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton stop it being anything more than a forgettable action flick. After all, when your lead characters look like they can’t be bothered, you’ve got a serious problem.