|If that’s a gingerbread house…|
…I’ll eat it. Seriously, what sort of revisionist, post-modern auteur turns the gingerbread house we all grew up with into a candy house, and hard candy at that? To be fair, the director, Tommy Wirkola, is a Norwegian of Saami descent, so he may have cultural markers that are different from ours, which may be why his first big-budget film, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” is such a tone-deaf snore.
“Witch Hunters” is the latest in a never-ending string of re-wrought fairy tales that are taking advantage of the new digital technology to create eye-popping realistic effects; just last year we had two brand-new Snow White movies, and later this year we’re getting an over-the-top rethink of Jack and the Beanstalk.
This version of the Grimm Brothers’ tale is the story of Hansel and Gretel all grown up. After having suffered the childhood trauma of being deserted by their parents and almost eaten by a witch, they have naturally turned to the bounty hunting of wicked beldames to keep the wolf from the door, if that’s the metaphor I want. They arrive in the filthy village of Augsburg (a slander on that lovely city) where kids have been disappearing, and begin the search in the surrounding dark and misty forest.
There’s a nice timeless quality to the production design that slips easily from Breughel peasantry to Victorian frock coats before it settles into a Steampunk phantasmagoria of highly over-engineered witch-killing weapons. The Steampunk aesthetic has been around since at least H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, and usually incorporates steam-or-gunpowder-powered contraptions that prefigure modern technology. If you’re old enough to remember Wild Wild West on 60s TV, you’re pretty close. The whole genre is fun and free-wheeling, with a gritty/classy Sherlockian look that lends itself to many fantasy tropes.
The Steampunk elements provide this movie’s moments of humor, such as a phonograph to attract the witches, a wind-up tazer, and woodcuts of the missing kids on milk bottles. Even the updated dialogue is sometimes fun, such as the young admirer who says, “I’m really quite a fan of your work.” And having been force-fed sweets as a child by the witch, Hansel has ended up diabetic and has to give himself daily injections with a huge wrought-iron syringe. But mostly we’re stuck with tired elements such as bullets that chop down trees, and slo-mo shots of winging crossbow arrows. (Did you hear the Crossbow Society disbanded? They had a quarrel, and the members bolted. Sorry.)
One of the places where the movie goes wrong is the principals. Jeremy Renner as Hansel has the flattest American Midwest delivery of anyone I’ve ever heard, and instead of letting Gemma Arterton loose in her mellifluous native Brit, she’s been directed to mimic Hansel, so the leads sound as dull as ditchwater. At least the witches’ coven is allowed a few gratifying cackles and shrieks. This is where that old shibboleth, Tone, comes in. If Wirkola had cut loose and let the entire production be high-spirited and high camp, he could have had a real treasure, but his Norwegian bachelor-farmer ear told him to keep everything low-key and to treat the funny bits as throwaways, which leads to exasperation in the audience.
(Speaking of tone, this is definitely not a version for little kids, unless you’ve utterly given up the struggle to keep your five-year-old from using the F-word.)
The special effects that accompany the witches are competent but workmanlike, pleasant to watch but short of gasp-inducing. Where have we seen witches riding on broomsticks recently, hmm? And by the end we’ve been reminded that, yes, only bad witches are ugly, in case we don’t remember that lesson from Glinda the Good.
But the movie’s main problem is the script’s simplistic story arc. Remember “Snakes on a Plane?” As soon as you saw the title you knew exactly what the movie was. As soon as you see “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” you know that they will seek witches, they will find witches, they will destroy witches. With two plot twists so transparent you will see them coming miles ahead, this is precisely all that happens. But with a running time of 87 minutes you’ll be home and sitting down to dinner before Bilbo and the Dwarves have left Rivendell.