The tagline of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is “Classic tale, new twist,” but you’ve got to admit that that sort of thing never works. Especially when we’re talking about steampunk-inspired gothic takes on classic myths, tales, and legends. Consider similar trainwrecks like Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, Van Helsing, or the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It didn’t really work for them and it most certainly doesn’t work for this movie. I think it’s safe to say this sort of anachronistic fantasy/adventure story should be saved for mediums like comics and literature that lend themselves to less lazy, more dynamic interpretations.
Essentially, H&G: WH asks the question, what happens when fairy tale characters grow up? Specifically, what happens when the children’s story characters Hansel and Gretel escape the witch that trapped them in her gingerbread house and tried to cook them? The lazily thought out and ridiculous answer here is that they become ruthless and heavily-armed bounty hunters ridding the land of the hoards of fanciful creatures that threaten the countryside. The story picks up where they are hired by the mayor of the village of Augsburg to rescue the town’s children who have been kidnapped by witches that gather in the deep dark forest nearby. Through incomprehensibly shot action that confuses you and murky 3-D that all too often cheaply flies toward the camera they uncover the witches’ plot that involves untold secrets from their past.
Most everything about them, including the plentiful amounts of leather they wear or the seemingly never-ending arsenal they carry with them - such as a rapid fire crossbow, steam-powered six shooters, and mechanical shotgun - are only there for stylistic aesthetics with nary an explanation in sight. Better to have quote/unquote “cool” looking toys that go boom instead of making a lick of sense or having an ounce of creativity is this movie’s motto.
The laughably poor production design looks like discarded ideas from the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland movie, and the overwrought music is full of tonally awkward cues and annoying glitchy guitar pulses. The makeup effects are alright, most likely because they got the same guys who worked on Hellboy and Hellboy 2 but again, this is stuff that better directors like Guillermo del Toro would have balked at before cameras even began to roll. In fact the only thing worthwhile about this movie is when it relies on its practical effects – most notably in the giant troll named Edward. It harkens back to old Jim Henson Creature Shop creations and establishes a sliver of a tangible fantasy world, but the world never really connects regardless.
It’s a mystery to me why anybody thought this movie was appealing. The story beats are so ham-fisted and the audience could really care less about the dully executed moments of dramatic tension. Also, the character traits inserted into the story to make it edgy or unique are so hilariously bad it boggles the mind. For instance, Hansel ostensibly has diabetes from eating the witch’s gingerbread house as a child that he has to inject himself with a homemade insulin concoction every day – I kid you not. The forced lightheartedness of the story falls flat as well, especially when the filmmakers think that they can achieve comic relief by just adding swear words to a character’s dialogue – i.e. when Hansel and an annoying minor character trying to be an honorary witch hunter approach the dreaded gingerbread house towards the film’s climax, Hansel turns to him and gruffly says, “Don’t eat the fuckin’ candy kid.” There are beats for laughs after these moments but it’s just awkward because the audience’s response is complete silence.
Jeremy Renner is just embarrassing himself here as Hansel, and the only thing good about Gemma Arterton as Gretel is being able to stare at her ridiculously tight leather pants for an hour and a half. This movie tries so hard to get your attention and to get you on board with its comical premise, but it never breaks through the irony in order to be in on the joke. It comes across as way too serious for its own good and just plain bad. Some movies are so off the mark that they just make you want to give up, and H&G: WH almost made me do it.