Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters film review

Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton preside over an embarrassment of witches

Say what you want about the film, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has a fun concept: Grimm’s siblings all grown up and hunting witches with a steampunk arsenal. The problem is  that the film itself is a barely-plotted collection of action-set pieces, clunky exposition and ropey one-liners.

The film starts with the fairy tale that we’re all familiar with. Young Hansel and Gretel are dumped in the woods by their father, where they find a candy house inhabited by a hungry witch. They turn the tables, roast the monster, and start a career as famed witch hunters (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) packing an array of badass weaponry and leather coats. But when they take on a case of 11 missing children, they stumble across a grand high witch (Famke Janssen) with a fiendish plan.

Steampunk action updates of fairy tale favourites don’t have a good track record (using steampunk in the loosest possible sense, like the filmmakers). Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters follows in the ignominious tradition of Terry Gilliam’s Miramax-butchered The Brothers Grimm and the execrable Van Helsing, and while it’s not as bad as the latter, it’s certainly disappointing enough to be lumped into the group.

Writer/director Tommy Wirkola got his R rating, and predictably uses it to take aim at the adolescent audience. There’s plenty of blood, boobs and explosions to keep the less demanding teens happy, while Renner and Arterton look like they’re having fun swearing up a storm (“Don’t eat the fucking candy”). But even the most gore-hungry pubescent will find the plot simplistic to the point of idiocy.

Famke Janssen does her best to channel Anjelica Huston in The Witches, but she’s saddled with bad dialogue and info dumps that she seems to repeat over and over again (the target audience could probably create a good drinking game looking out for the phrases “blood moon” and “white witch”).

It does move at a brisk pace, with a running time of 88 minutes including the credits, which basically means that by the halfway point Wirkola is already setting up the finale. The second half of the film has the distinct feeling of being edited to the point of becoming nonsensical. Plot points and character beats that should be dwelled upon are merrily skipped over, as the director is determined that an upbeat tone be maintained throughout.

The commitment to making a piece of escapist fun is not to be sniffed at, but it’s so hell-bent on keeping things fast and funny that it quickly becomes vacuous. This is especially noticeable in the case of Hansel’s love interest Mina (Pihla Viitala). The actress is solid enough, but the cursory treatment of the character leaves a bitter taste.

Not the other characters fare much better. Renner and Arterton seem like odd choices for a film like this. Renner’s obviously a dab hand with action, but he’s not exactly known for his lighter side. The Avengers Assemble star works hard to give his character a wise-cracking charm, but there are a number of actors who could have done it better (the role feels like it was written with Nathan Fillion in mind). Meanwhile, Arterton looks like she’s enjoying playing a tougher character, and she does get to headbutt Peter Stormare (who, coincidentally, starred in The Brothers Grimm), but a more lively performance would be needed to make the character interesting. As for their pervy young comedy sidekick Ben (Thomas Mann), well, the less said the better.

It’s not completely irredeemable, however. The knockabout tone and gory action does occasionally come together, and a fight between our heroes and the Horned Witch (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, star of excellent Norwegian slasher Cold Prey and its sequel) is an enjoyably bruising highlight. It should also be noted that there are several nice little ideas littered throughout the film, like Hansel’s diabetes, although that’s only used as a convenient plot point. There’s some good production design and make-up work, so it’s a shame that the murky 3D conversion often makes it difficult to see.

So, on the scale of fairy tale action movies, where does Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters rate? It’s obvious that its aspirations are small. It’s aiming for disposable entertainment, and at times achieves it. Provided your expectations are very low and you switch your brain off at the door, there are a couple of chuckles to be had, but it is a clunky and decidedly forgettable disappointment.