Review by C.J. Bunce
Every bit like a crazy and dark Sam Raimi production, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters takes an already creepy Grimm fairy tale and amplifies it into a bloody Rated R monster movie. It is as true as you could probably hope to get to the spirit of the original story of two kids who outwit a witch in a house made of candy. We even get to see the original tale laid out nearly verbatim to the centuries-old story, including the triumph of the kids who foil the witch and throw her into the oven.
But that is only the beginning of the tale, and this is the story after the story, a sequel where Hansel and Gretel become mercenaries who hire themselves out to small forest towns to rid them of the plague of witches who have stolen nearly a dozen children. Witch Hunters never takes itself seriously. Images of the missing children end up on printed broadsides on the 1800 version of a milk bottle. And after decades of consuming candy, Hansel is diabetic (he has the “sugar” disease) and must take an early form of insulin to prevent him from dying.
Harkening back to the German origins of the fairy tale, Witch Hunters is a German production with lots of German design influences. Like the original Grimm tales this is a violent and gory story. Witches are instantly the unsympathetic villains who are bad for bad’s sake. Led by the beautiful Famke Janssen, who for most of the film dons some impressive prosthetics, these witches are the stuff of the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. A motley assemblage of Halloween-esque witches with brooms don dark garb on their own evil sabbath day and congregate in a spot in the woods in something strangely similar to an annual rally in Sturgis.
Not only are these witches decked out with some great (aka vile) make-up, we meet a troll named Edward that ends up as one of the high points of the film. Edward is not a CGI character but a giant physical ogre whose girth presents a troll straight from a kid’s mind’s eye–something even Shrek and The Lord of the Rings didn’t get as good. Keep an eye out a certain “white witch” who is saved early on by Hansel, played in a noteworthy performance by Finnish actress Pihla Viitala in her first major English role. Young actor Thomas Mann portrays a humorous fanboy for the fairy tale duo, even having his own poster of Gretel hanging over his bed.
The stars have their own chemistry and make a good crimefighting duo. Hansel is played by Jeremy Renner, best known as Hawkeye from the Marvel Studios Avengers movies. Although 15 years younger than Renner in real-life, Gemma Arterton, Bond girl Strawberry Fields from Quantum of Solace, gets her first lead role as action hero, holding her own in a tough-as-nails role like Alice from Resident Evil. Much of the humor of the film–and there is plenty of humor throughout–comes from the witty dialogue, especially the foul-mouthed banter of Hansel and Gretel themselves. Both Renner and Arterton get many hand combat, shotgun and crossbow battles, all cleverly choreographed for maximum effect in the 3D version of the show. Even the credits, beginning and end, are notable for their cool themed 3D imagery. The costume style has its own take on steampunk, with strangely old yet futurisitic weapons and outfits you’d only find in the land of make-believe.
Created in part by MTV films, the score really highlights the heroic nature of the rescue scenes, with heavy guitars and thumping rhythms. This may be one of Hans Zimmer’s best musical productions, even considering his work on the Dark Knight, Pirates of the Caribbean and Sherlock Holmes movies, with the score composed here by Atli Örvarsson.
Ultimately Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters brings to life nightmares any kids have from reading old spooky stories like the original Grimm tales, something like a modern update to Child Catcher in Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The filmmakers don’t pull any punches–kids get terrorized, witches get pulled apart, burnt, hanged, knifed and even exploded. Humans get similar treatment, including lots of bursting body parts, and the R rating will likely keep many away from what at first appearances might have been a kid-friendly flick. It is definitely not that. But it is something fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena, Warrior Princess may find pretty harmless–lots of kick-butt action scenes with women doing equal parts of the heavy lifting. Ultimately it’s a rollicking and entertaining B-movie horror-fantasy ride.