Stars: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Peter Stormare, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala, Derek Mears | Written and Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Two of the prevailing winds in the projects being greenlit by Hollywood lately have been the re-imagining of classic children’s stories and the anachronistic mash-up film. After the success of Disney’s poop-fest Alice In Wonderland a few years back, studios have lined up to brush off the likes of Snow White and The Wizard of Oz to give them new life and a fresh revenue stream, while the trend set by Pride & Prejudice & Zombies, still in development for the big screen, has seen projects as diverse as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Cockneys vs Zombies get the go-ahead, hoping to tap into the perverse sense of watching two opposites come together. Both of these elements combine in this week’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, the American feature debut of Dead Snow helmer Tommy Wirkola who writes and directs here.
Fittingly for the film’s origins being of the “mash up” variety, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a film which does seem to struggle in establishing just exactly what it wants to be. As the marketing lets on, there’s a lot of excess here with CG-assisted gore increasing in frequency as proceedings go on, a fair bit of swear-powered dialogue and a fair chunk of ogling the female flesh on display, very pointedly in one scene involving Gemma Arterton. All of this is aiming for the baser instincts in the viewer, and in all fairness there’s a steady stream of enjoyment to be had in watching people blow up, heads get stomped on and 3D explosions and shards of glass get thrown in your face (the 3D overall having a decent sense of depth and “coming at you” moments which make it worth a go in this format if you’re willing). Wirkola stages these more exploitation rooted moments well with solid production design, make-up and a wise decision to mix animatronic and physical work performed by Derek Mears for the troll, all aiding him in making a production which visually is pretty classy.
Where Wirkola does struggle though is when the screenplay tries to force us to actually feel. The opening 10 minutes or so sees a prologue in which we learn how Hansel and Gretel became witch hunters and there’s not a moment of humour to it, it’s dark, nasty but doesn’t hit the emotional beats you expect Wirkola wants it to. This troubles other moments in the film where their history comes back to haunt them, interrupting what is otherwise a jolly romp and messing with the pacing in a way which makes the endeavor feel longer than the sparse 88 minute runtime would suggest.
Helping matters again though is a cast which overall is rather game. Peter Stormare is basically doing a less comic version of his character from The Brothers Grimm again showing how he is surely one of the laziest character actors around at the moment, but Famke Janssen sinks her teeth into her antagonist with a nice mixture of the alluring thing anyone who’s seen Goldeneye will know she can do, with a more traditional hammy but appropriately so witch who cackles and like to ride brooms. She gets the tone right throughout, something Jeremy Renner struggles to do at times though his badassery convinces in the action. Coming out best from the film is Gemma Arterton who seems to get what Wirkola was going for even if he didn’t himself, taking events seriously but allowing herself to indulge in the more ridiculous moments when needed to. It’s not the kind of film which will advance her career but it shows, just like with Renner, that they’re willing to try something different, and that’s always healthy for an actor.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is far from perfect but if you’re so inclined it’s hard not to get some sort of a kick from it. While rather forgettable, it’s a fun time while it’s on and in all fairness, if you were expecting more when going in you were probably misguided. *** 3/5
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is in cinemas across the UK now.