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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS (2013)

Starring: Gemma Arterton, Jeremy Renner, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Peter Stormare, Thomas Mann

Written & Directed By: Tommy Wirkola

The Short Version

The fairy tale siblings grow up to kick ass!  What a great concept!

Just don’t go in expecting some highfalutin epic myth and fantasy spectacular.

This is a good old fashioned action movie that doesn’t pretend to be anything else.

Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner make for an outstanding Gretel and Hansel.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a fun, unapologetic blast.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

PORT WINE SPREAD.

Put it on some crackers and start the party.


Pairs Well With...

RUMPLE MINZE.

Tastes like peppermint candy; knocks you over like a blast from a witch’s wand.

“We learned a couple of things while we were trapped in that house.  One, never walk in to a house made of candy.  And two, if you're gonna kill a witch, set her ass on fire.”


Well, this one sure came out of nowhere.

Most of us grew up knowing one form or another of the classic “Hansel & Gretel” fairy tale.  Two children are either wandering or abandoned in the woods (depending on how sanitized your version is), and find themselves in a house made of candy owned by a witch.  The witch has them gorge on the candy, intending to fatten them up so she can eat them, but the children outwit her, kill her in her own oven, and escape.

But what, writer/director Tommy Wirkola wondered, happened afterward?

The answer he came up with: Hansel (Jeremy Renner, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton, Quantum of Solace) grew up to be vengeful witch hunters!

I must say, I never saw that one coming, but as far as premises go, it makes complete sense, and what’s more, it’s utterly brilliant.  Of course there’s a movie in this!  And for those who are content to just settle in and have a good time with a fun premise that doesn’t aspire to anything too lofty, there’s even a good movie in this.  For people who’ve been spoiled by the likes of Peter Jackson and Gandalf the Grey, however… such folks are going to need to crank their too-high expectations down a few notches.

If you’re expecting Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters to be a highly atmospheric, magical journey into a wondrous world of myth and fantasy, filled with ethereal music and spectacular sparkling vistas and elves and hobbits and hard-drinking dwarves with perfect baritone voices… yeah; dial that back a bit.

If you’re expecting Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters to be a dark, intense character study of two traumatized orphans struggling against not just the evil of the witch cult that nearly killed them as children, but also against the burgeoning evil within themselves… too much pop psychology there that’s just not gonna happen.

If you’re expecting Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters to be any kind of epic at all… forget that noise.

And really, that’s all okay.  Just because the premise behind Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has the potential to go all of those places and more, that doesn’t mean the guy writing the story and directing the film is obligated to do any of that.  He just thought it’d be a cool setup for a fun little action flick, and he’s right.  This movie has no aspirations to be new cinematic literature; it’s just out to entertain people.  Depth beyond basic story support not required.  Single mission.  Done. 

I can and do appreciate that kind of unpretentious honesty.

I also appreciate the modernistic characterizations bestowed upon Hansel and Gretel, first by the script, and then by the performers playing them. 

Gretel is the boss and the attitude and the spokesperson of the duo, and Gemma Arterton does a wonderful job of bringing her to life.  She plays the leadership role with an easy authority while at the same time not allowing the character to come across as the “hard bitch” stereotype that so commonly occurs with such parts in other films.  (Gretel does, after all, have a soft spot for trolls.)  Arterton also sells the action quotient exceptionally well; her combat scenes are a joy to watch, and she lays down an attitude that would be right at home in the action films of the 80s and 90s from which Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters obviously draws a fair amount of inspiration.  (I can’t help but laugh out loud with delight when Gretel finds that she’s been led back to the dilapidated remains of the candy house from her childhood and exasperatedly declares “You’ve gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me.”  You’ll never hear that from a hobbit.)

Hansel, meanwhile, is the blunt skeptic with the social awkwardness issues, which is rather fun to see coming from the rising star of three other action franchises, Jeremy Renner.  The actor’s physical prowess in combat sequences has already been well established by those other films, and he doesn’t let up on the gas here, either.  But what really strikes me is how much Renner appears to be enjoying playing the shy guy whose tough guy act on the job is something of a front, particularly during the pool scene that seems to bother so many other people.  (Impending sex and nudity alert.)  I also like the little touch added to Hansel’s biography through which we learn that he’s become a rather alarming form of diabetic as a result of his experiences in the candy cottage.  (He needs to take what we assume are insulin shots whenever his not-quite-steampunk watch warns him to, and if he doesn’t attend to them very quickly, he’s had it.)  Clever, that.

And as for the Witch Hunters’ arsenal… trick crossbows, telescoping pistols, and Gatling guns, anyone?  Ammunition blessed by white magic?  Oh, don’t fret; if the sword and sorcery video games can toss in modern firearms, so can the movies, and there are still a few wands to be found for the traditionalists.  Besides, it just provides more variety and a bigger spectacle during the witch hunt, especially when it comes time for the big raid in the final act.  Back it all up with people behind the camera who know how to film a decent action sequence and effects wizards who work just enough of their own magic to make it all pop, and you’ve got yourself a party, especially since just about everyone involved is in on the movie’s biggest secret: it’s all about having fun.

Okay, so maybe not everyone is in on the secret.  Famke Janssen (Goldeneye) admitted in interviews that she took on the role of Muriel, the Grand Witch, primarily as a means of paying the mortgage, and astute audiences who’ve seen her in more than two films will likely be able to tell that her heart’s not necessarily in it here.  But she doesn’t phone it in, either, and her ‘judgmentally unimpressed’ portrayal actually fits the character quite well.  Her fellow witches generally seem more amused to be there, and one can definitely say that the makeup department had a field day coming up with their various looks.  As a cadre of child-thieving practitioners of the dark arts, they work well, and make overall make for satisfying targets for Hansel and Gretel’s ire.

More tired is the town sheriff, Berringer (Peter Stormare (Chocolat), who falls into the “nasty jerk just to be a nasty jerk” stereotype and whose primary means of being tolerable involves Gretel doing painful things to his nose.  But that’s really it as far as irritants go here.

Bottom line, if you walk into Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters without epic preconceptions and just accept it for the unapologetic action movie that it is, the movie is a total blast.  The premise is great, the action’s fun, and Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner are just a joy to watch and listen to.  Take it for what it is, and this flick’s a party in a box.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2014


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