Review: Hansel And Gretel: Witch Hunters



Renner and Arterton. A duo no one wanted in a movie no one should see.

Renner and Arterton. A duo no one wanted in a movie no one should see.

Yes, this came way earlier this year, but I only saw it the other week, on a whim when myself and my sister wanted to watch a movie and this was the only thing available that neither of us had seen.

I kind of wish that was still the case.

It is very difficult for a movie to hit the “so bad its good” mark. A lot of directors, sometimes from the start, sometimes only when they realise the terrible material they have to work with, try and fail to hit that mark, in a desperate bid to turn their crappy screenplay, terrible cast and worthless plot ideas into something that they can actually market. The Asylum has made an art form out of this, but they are a shining exception.

No, a lot of the time, when a  movie “knows” it’s bad, and simply tries to play into that fact, you do not get comedy gold, but simply a bad movie trying desperately to be anything other than an absolute waste of time.

This production is very much like that. At some point, the back room team abandoned all pretence of a serious attempt at a supernatural action film, and just tried to make something “so bad it’s good”. I’m convinced this was a decision taken after production started too. And it absolutely did not work.

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters see’s the titular brother and sister pair (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Aterton), having survived the grisly tale that made them famous as children, take up an adult career of hunting down all of those evil magic users who threaten the land. But when an especially powerful witch (Famke Jannsen) tries to enact an evil plot to gain incredible power, the siblings are forced into a dangerous battle that invokes some secret aspects of their past.

It is a truly god-awful film with a god-awful plot. Leaving aside all of the other problems, this is a cookie-cutter fantasy/fairy-tale adventure with an overly-edgy tone, that simply makes it easier to ridicule. It’s predictable to the hilt, from the introduction of “good” witches to the “revelation” about the two main character pasts. Every scene, every sequence, from the opening prologue to the post-credit finale, is a great example of how not to craft an effective story.

It tries not to take itself too seriously, and therein falls down, as ridiculous lines and overly-bloody fight scenes combine to detract from the experience to a huge degree. I can’t buy into any of the characters journeys or dilemmas, when its clear that the “plot” is just a means to bring us from uninspiring set-piece, to lame jokes, and back to another uninspiring set-piece. There is a certain seriousness that a fantasy film like this needs, or else any suspension of disbelief is impossible. The attempt to make this into a “so bad its good” film by playing up the campiness of the whole project is a total failure in my eyes. Hansel and Gretel is trying to be a parody of these kinds of movies at points, and is failing miserably. Where something like The Brothers Grimm was a partial success, Hansel and Gretel is a total disaster. There is no subtly here, no effective satire, just a collection of clichéd plot points and non-existent drama.

Its terrible paced, with the action moments to far apart and with an awful lot of wandering around aimlessly in between. In a film where every other element is so terrible, only the action scenes are going to save it, so it’s really odd to see large stretches where very little is happening onscreen to advance the plot or to get us to a point where the interest will be re-piqued. The main plot trips along without any sense of verve or excitement, the kind of absence in this sort of action movie that is just so damning, with what pitiful sub-plots we are offered up serving only to make the entire thing worse. The portions set around the town are dull and derivative of any positive feelings, the sections wandering around the wood are interminable, and  everything just feels wrong. Where the film should take its time in establishing character, like in the town, it rushes. Where it should speed up, like the latter half of the second act, it slows to a crawl as the characters tumble around a wood looking for random encounters like an RPG party.

The characters are stale as can be, one-dimensional, flat, whatever words you want to use to describe the moving props that inhibit the screen. Only the barest amount of filler is used to try and drag the title characters above the mire, but even then it barely works. In the end, they’re just nothing figures, with the most hackneyed and forced motivations, and a “secret past” angle that is as predictable as it is pointless. Everyone else, and I do mean everyone else, might as well have been taken straight from “The Big Book of Throwaway Characters” with poor motivations, no sense of life (critical in a fantasy movie) and no reason for the audience to care about them at all.

A decent opening sequence simply lulls the audience into a false sense of security...

A decent opening sequence simply lulls the audience into a false sense of security…

The romantic sub-plot boils down to little more than an awkward and eye-rolling scene at a hot spring, with no feeling that there is a genuine attraction between the two characters involve. In fact, without treading on the toes of the upcoming thoughts on the acting, there wasn’t a ingle relationship or interaction in this film that felt in any way above the grain, with most of them just being a continuation of the films overall awfulness.

The villain, whose name I can’t even remember, is severely under-developed, the sort of “evil for the sake of being evil” antagonist that I just can’t bring myself to care about or view as someone worthy of being a threat to the main characters. She cackles, she kills the lesser bad guys, she dies, the end. Who cares? With your two main characters not exactly setting this fantasy world alight with their adventures, this is the kind of movie that really needs a strong villainous presence. Perhaps someone like Charlize Theron from Snow White and the Huntsmen, who while over-acting to the very hilt, was at least a strong presence on screen. The Wicked Witch of this production can claim no such thing.

Hansel and Gretel also tries to interject some emotion into proceedings in the most ham-fisted and pointless ways, like trying to make the troll sympathetic by getting him to help out Gretel, or the duo taking pity on the obsessed fanboy character. This is all so much sentimental tripe, the lowest kind of way to try and get an audience to connect with a character, and it requires far better performances than the ones that we are given here. That troll character seems to exist for no other reason than the mid-film change of heart, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to care enough.

There are so many plot holes here that it would actually be a waste of energy to try and recount all of them. Most of them are of a pretty minor nature, like how the witches in the finale end up flying straight into the one stretch of wire in the forest for some reason, but the film is just littered with them and it badly affects things. The budget here is too big for this to be of an Asylum level of plot continuity.

Then there are just the really odd plot points, the stupidest of which is the Hansel character being diabetic. I mean, your male lead, the hero, in a fantasy/action movie, and his Achilles heel is that he has fantasy diabetes, the kind where he has to take an injection of some black liquid every few hours like clockwork or he immediately starts falling over. How did he find the hypodermic needle? How is he not getting an infection? The only way to get past a film like this that includes such ridiculous plot points (and a lack of understanding of how diabetes works) is to try and shut off your brain I suppose, but as I have previously outlined, that is not something that I am willing to do.

You don’t have to look too far here to see where the problems start. Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola doesn’t exactly have a steller pedigree when it comes to making truly great movies, the best he’s previously been able to offer being the forgettable zombie horror Dead Snow, the kind of niche production that won more praise for its general premise than what it actually contained. Hansel and Gretel is his biggest project to date, and he’s taken a 50 million dollar budget and turned out a mess. A profitable mess it cannot be denied, but a mess nonetheless.

I mean, there is actually some potential here. The Brothers Grimm is basically the same thing, and that was halfway decent. Fairy tales with a dark twist? Some action? I can get behind that idea and I don’t even mind the inherent ridiculousness of the famous sibling pair turning into a Lethal Weapon-style outfit. But the execution is incredibly poor, especially plot-wise.

I suppose I can’t just leave it there though. I kind of liked the opening sequence with the Gingerbread house, which was presented well enough, as simply and horrifically as possible.

Yup, that’s it.

If you want to know how to not do a romance plot, look no further.

If you want to know how to not do a romance plot, look no further.

The acting. Oh man, the acting. I read somewhere that this is the movie that nearly led to Jeremy Renner quitting Hollywood, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s truly terrible in this , phoning it in to the absolute fullest extent, with the barest hint of emotion in just about every droning scene where he character struggles to even raise his voice an octave higher than the “dull” setting. Every single time Renner opens his mouth in this movie, whether he’s admonishing the bad guy, talking down to the fanboy, or in any scene with his love interest, it’s the same unmistakably flat delivery, the product of a man who must have seen the garbage production he had signed up for early and was content to the do the very least amount of work possible. That’s terrible, because Renner can actually act – see The Hurt Locker and The Bourne Legacy – he’s just choosing not too here.

I suppose for that reason I can forgive Gemma Aterton a bit, because she’s never been that good at acting. The love interest in the surprisingly passable Prince of Persia adaptation is as high up as she has ever gone, if you don’t count her ten minute showing in Quantum of Solace. She’s just as terrible as Renner though, but at least we can safely say that this is the height of her ability as opposed to the minimum. From dealing with the fanboy ogling her breasts (one of the only reasons Arterton was cast I imagine) to the showdown with the evil witch, Aterton’s performance has about as much emotional resonance and ability as the laptop keys I’m currently typing this on.

And, it should go without saying I suppose, but there is a total lack of chemistry between two leads. Arterton and Rennner being a brother and sister pair is about as believable as Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya being a likable character.

Famke Jennsen, who is well-regarded for her work in a lot of roles, not least the X-Men franchise and the hit TV show The Good Wife, is our villain, but she just has nothing to work with other than “be evil”. Her character is so one-dimensional and uninteresting that there is nothing she can do to alter things for the better, especially behind all of the make-up. She sneers, she has an evil laugh. That’s it.

God, who else is there? A collection of B-movie rejects really, or debutants struggling through. Pihla Viiitala is the amazingly poor love interest for Hansel, whose German-ish accent seems to change to a more posh English one halfway through without any explanation. Thomas Mann is the aforementioned fanboy who is an annoying as he is unimportant to the overall plot. And Peter Stormare is the gruff Sherriff, who gets killed off half way through after briefly threatening to be a believable villain.

It really is a terribly acted production from start to finish, easily the worst I’ve seen this year – even worse than Oz The Great and Powerful, because at least there were a few people trying in that film.

Visually, it’s a dank, unimaginative production. The same locales are used over and over again, most notably a woodland area, that looks excessively drab and repetitive. Same thing with the dark, unremarkable town streets and rooms. Just nothing to write home about whatsoever, no special level of detail or complexity to see. The lone exception is famous “Gingerbread house” at the start, which looks like the right mix of fairy tale and twisted, and it was, admittedly, kind of neat to go back to the rotting remains of that home later in the film. But in terms of visuals and the camerawork used, that’s about as positive as I am able to really go.

What special effects there are, are incredibly bad, easily the worst I have seen this year, only just pulling themselves ahead of the Asylum level;. The flying witches, the explosions, anything that involves a computer inserted image looks tacky and fake, not fitting in with the real surrounds at all and just reducing the suspension of disbelief even further. Even the most basic things, like the sudden appearance of bullet time effects at places, are totally botched.

And it continues on with basic prop work. The blood (and there is a lot of it) looks fake, the wrong colour. The weapon props are so anachronistic that they start to just be points of amusement after a while. It seems like every scene and location, bar the aforementioned gingerbread house, was made to the cheapest and least eye-catching level.

The make-up work is about as high as it gets for this production.

The make-up work is about as high as it gets for this production.

The fight scenes are poorly choreographed and repetitive in nature, save for maybe the last one which suddenly introduces lots of new witches for just a bit of variety. Nothing too complex here, just a series of punches, grunts and a few more punches before the bad guys fall down, with an occasional explosion or blood waterfall to spice things up. The action scenes basically amount to the two title characters trading shots with the bad guys, repeatedly getting their asses handed to them, before sort of blundering into success.

What’s good visually? The troll is a decent construction I suppose, if just a little unnatural looking after a point. The one thing about the entire production I could out rightly praise is the make-up department, which does a great job for the villain and her various minion witches. It’s actually not even too crazy to describe what they did there as Oscar winning quality, which is pretty bizarre in a movie this terrible.

The script is, in a word, awful. To use several more words, it’s terrible, pathetic and altogether atrocious. From the very first lines where Renner commences his “acting” by informing us that the best way to kill a witch is to “light her ass on fire” to Gretel closing with “This isn’t going to be open casket”, this is a non-stop recital of terrible lines and inane dialogue.

Marvel at the way whole scenes are dominated by basic exposition! Wonder at how hilariously non-threatening the main villain sounds! Be amazed at the complete lack of connection evident in the dialogue between the two title characters! Be dazzled at how adding in curse words when they aren’t really necessary doesn’t automatically make the script better!

There really is very little to add. I can’ think of a single bit of wordplay in this film that I actually liked, felt served the scene or the plot to the full extent or was in anyway memorable for positive reasons.

There is absolutely nothing special to say about the soundtracks or the score. I suppose it is a just about acceptable mix of orchestra and electric guitar, but it certainly isn’t the kind of thing that you will be humming heading out of the theatre.

I tend to close on themes, but a movie this utterly shallow and pisspoor doesn’t really have any, beyond a bare scratching of the surface. I suppose you could say that there is a bit about the nature of the sibling relationship and all that, but with only the most minor adjustments you could turn the two main characters into a bickering couple rather than brother and sister. I suppose there is your classic fantasy theme of “good vs evil” and the grey area that can exist between the two, discovered when the sibling duo find out that they are, themselves, descended from a witch.

But it really isn’t that important to the overall production, a fleeting glimpse at something approaching subtly and depth. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is just an empty vessel of a movie.

I’d like to close by making a comparison with another movie, similar in many respects to Hansel and Gretel, but still considered by me to actually be decent enough, and proof that you make this genre work. That movie was Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Now, that movie has a completely mental premise, but it does something very important: it plays it completely straight. No campiness, no winking at the audience, just a historical figure who leads a secret life hunting the undead. It makes good use (mostly) of its CGI budget and uses a mostly unknown or low-hype cast to good effect (I suppose Mary Elizabeth Winstead was the most well known cast member). It has brilliant costumes and make-up, a good script, excellent pacing and really effective action sequences. Just about everything that Hansel and Gretel gets wrong, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter gets right and that’s why I liked it so much, despite the random plot. It can be done right, as that film demonstrates.

In conclusion, I actually wouldn’t class Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters as the worst film I’ve seen this year – that dubious honour still remains with the appalling Zero Dark Thirty, due more to the high expectations I had going in more than anything – but man it comes very, very close. With the lone exception of the opening sequence and some aspects of the production team like make-up work, every single part of it is a collection of awfulness, with the plot, acting, visual effects, script, music and themes simply arranging themselves on a scale between “barely passable” and “run away screaming”. Which is what you should do, from this movie.

A very awful affair.

A very awful affair.

(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

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