“The only good witch is a dead witch.”
Deneb’s rating: Three candy houses out of five.
Deneb’s review: You ever run across the trailer for a movie and know exactly how it’s going to play out?
I don’t mean when it’s one of those trailers that give everything away by spoiling all the best bits – those suck. I mean when you’re just given a glimpse of the film and you immediately know A: what it is, and B: that you’re going to see it.
Such was the case with me and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. I knew exactly what I was getting into when I went to see this movie, and it lived up to my expectations to a tee. As for what they were, well – you don’t honestly expect me to give all that away in the first few paragraphs, do you? Nope. That comes after the plot.
H&G:WH is set in… uh… sometime or other in the past, in what is most likely Germany. It starts out in familiar territory – two young children, Hansel and Gretel, are abandoned by their father in the middle of the deep dark woods. Wandering around, lost and frightened, they run across a house made of candy, and are lured inside and captured by the resident witch, who plans to turn them into roast kiddies. They outsmart her, she ends up being the one to go in the oven; they get away free and clear.
So far, all is in accordance with the classic fairy tale we all know. But here’s where things start to wander off the beaten path, and where the plot of the movie starts in earnest.
See, the two kids realize that they’re really pretty good at this whole witch-killing thing. And as it happens, they wind up running into, and killing, another witch – and another – and another. They start to build up a reputation…
Cut to twenty-odd years later. Hansel and Gretel (now played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) are now famed across Europe as witch hunters extraordinaire. Essentially, they’re bounty hunters who specialize in witches. That’s no mean task, either, because we are not dealing with frail old ladies here. Witches in this movie’s universe may or may not be a different species; it’s never made completely clear (although it’s certainly implied), but whatever they are, their magic twists and deforms them, and in most cases makes them superhumanly fast, strong and agile, on top of all the flying around on brooms and spell-casting, of course. You’ve gotta be tough to take ‘em down, and H&G are the best in the biz.
The job they are currently hired for brings them to the town of Augsburg, where people are not happy at all. Their children have been vanishing left and right, and everything smacks of witchery. As such, they’re counting on the two siblings to face down the threat and get their children back.
A little investigation shows that the townsfolk were absolutely right – there are witches behind this. Quite a few of them, in fact, being led by the Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who, as you may imagine, is several orders of magnitude worse than your average witch. It seems that there’s something big in the works, something in which lots of blood will be spilled. If the witch hunters don’t put a stop to it right away, there could be dire consequences, both for Augsburg and for society as a whole.
Scale notwithstanding, though, this isn’t just another job for them. See, there are several unsolved mysteries in their past, not the least of which being that they never did find out why they were abandoned in the woods that night. And Muriel seems to be taking an uncommon interest in the duo for reasons beyond mere professional enmity. As things start heating up, Hansel and Gretel need to get some answers, or this is one witch-hunt that they might not find themselves walking away from…
Let’s not mince words here – if you’re looking for something that’s smart and original, you can keep looking. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is not that kind of flick. It’s riddled with clichés, it has enough anachronisms to give a historian a heart attack, and it splatters the screen with gore. This is a Big, Dumb Movie.
However, it knows it’s a Big Dumb Movie. It was clearly written by someone who likes, or at least appreciates, Big, Dumb Movies, and knows how to bring out their virtues and minimize their flaws – and that’s both its saving grace and the reason that it is, in fact, quite enjoyable.
Look – this is a movie where two classic fairy tale characters get dressed up in black leather and mow down legions of monstrous witches with a variety of preposterous weapons. I suppose it’s possible that someone could make an insightful, thought-provoking movie with such guidelines to work with, but why bother when it’s so much more fun this way? They’re basically modern-day Americans transplanted to fairy tale Germany and given really big guns – it’s the very definition of artificiality, but it’s played so straight-faced that it just works.
Anyway, Big, Dumb Movie or not, people clearly cared about what they were making and put some effort into getting it all right. Take those guns (and other weapons) I just mentioned, for instance – their presence may make no sense at all in a setting like this, but they’re really quite impressive in a steampunk sort of way. The design work is striking; there’s lots of hand-detailing, bits of inlay, stuff like that – they look like they were made by craftsmen rather than on an assembly line, which is completely appropriate for a pre-industrial time period like this one. These are cool damn guns, and the fact that they get increasingly less plausible as the film progresses only adds to their coolness. I mean, if you’re going to have that sort of thing in your movie, might as well go all out, ya know?
This philosophy was clearly applied to the rest of the art design as well. H&G:WH may look vaguely generic in spots, but when it shines, it shines. Take the witch’s house at the beginning, for instance – that is the creepiest damn candy house I have ever seen, to the point where, if it weren’t for the fact that the two protagonists were wandering starving and lost through the woods when they saw it, I would call them a pair of utter fools for even stepping anywhere near that sugary nightmare factory. True, it looks like it might be good to eat – but it also looks like it might eat you! Who honestly thinks that would be a good trade-off?
Furthermore, an aspect of the film that I really respect is its reliance on practical effects as opposed to CGI. Sure, there is some of the latter, but it’s mainly just used to add a little polish to things – everything from Edward the troll (yes, there is a troll. Named Edward. And he is awesome) to the witches’ ugliness was pulled off via make-up, prosthetics and (in the case of the former) animatronics. The witches on their broomsticks? Good ol’ fashioned wirework. The illusion thereby created is damn near flawless, and I salute Tommy Wirkola for sticking to his guns and not making things all fakey-looking. Sometimes the old ways are the best, and no amount of computerized whoopdy-doo can change that.
Speaking of special effects, I suppose I should address the issue of gore. Now, I’m not what you’d call a gorehound – I tend to veer a bit more towards ‘well, that’s slightly nauseating’ than ‘whoa, cool!’ – but the gore in this movie didn’t bother me at all. See, here’s the thing – there is a lot of it here, because what with all the… everything, the kill-count is pretty high, but what it basically amounts to is just a whole bunch of bright red goopy explosions. It’s graphic, but not truly realistic, which is probably for the best, since it allows people like me to enjoy all the macabre creativity at work. People get shot in the head, sliced to pieces, blown up, ripped in half – one pictures the screenwriter sitting at his computer with an evil grin on his face, going ‘hmm – how can I kill someone this time?’
Now, since the whole impetus for said killings is the witches, I guess the time has come to talk about them. Before I get into the nitty-gritty, though, there’s an issue that should be addressed – not a gigantic one, but it is there.
As I’m sure most of you know, witch-hunts were and are an actual thing. As such, some have criticized this film for effectively trivializing what in real life was the persecution/execution of goodness only knows how many perfectly normal women whose only crime was being disliked by their neighbors – either that, or the practice of a benign form of nature-worship that the Church didn’t agree with.
If any of you reading this happen to share those views, I’m here to say to you – don’t worry. For one thing, these are not ‘real’ witches; they’re fairy tale ones, and a uniquely filmic version of them, too – they could be any type of magical/supernatural creature, and the film would play out more or less the same. It could just as easily be ‘Hansel and Gretel: Vampire Slayers’ – the fact that they’re all women is simply because, well, that’s what witches are; there’s no misogyny involved here. As for the second concern, that actually is addressed, sort of. I won’t give it away, but you’ll probably see it coming.
That settled? Good, because these are some pretty damn awesome witches. Muriel and her subordinates get the most screen-time, but there is a swarm of witchy goodness on display throughout the movie, which ranges from merely ‘ugly’ to ‘spectacularly bizarre’. There’s the vaguely punkish-looking hedgehog-witch, the freaky bald albino witch, the one with the skull-mask… There are conjoined twin kung-fu witches. Conjoined twin kung-fu witches. With swords. What more could one possibly ask for?
In terms of characters, there aren’t all that many, and fewer still that I can discuss without talking about some twists near the end (although I should give at least a nod to Thomas Mann as the witch hunter fanboy and Peter Stormare as the petty and bloody-minded town sheriff; they’re both pretty fun). However, Hansel and Gretel themselves should be safe to start with, yes? Okey-dokey, den.
H&G fall into the classic duo dynamic – he’s the brawn, she’s the brains. Not that Hansel is stupid; he’s just more of the gruff, I-don’t-have-time-to-deal-with-this-crap type, whereas Gretel is more analytical and better at tactics and research – also a tad friendlier and more open. She’s equally as badass as her brother, it’s just that for her this is more of a job, to be dealt with in a detached, professional manner; for him, it’s personal – and this makes sense; he, after all, was the one the witch was going to stuff into the fire and roast for dinner. He hates witches!
Both Renner and Arterton do a good job here, and, perhaps more importantly, they play very well off each other. You don’t see too many brother-and-sister action team-ups in movies, and that’s a shame, because if anyone is likely to have your back, it’s a sibling, and while brother/brother sister/sister duos are common enough (although more the former than the latter), brother/sister allows for a type of platonic interplay that is relatively uncommon between a man and a woman onscreen. The two actors both get all this, and they translate it into a believable family relationship – H&G clearly have a good deal of love and affection for each other, but they can get on each other’s nerves just like any pair of siblings can. (Renner certainly has a few ‘what’s my dumb sister talking about now’ moments.) That being said, when they need each other’s help, they’re a formidable team (although not, it was nice to see, an invincible one – they both get the crap kicked out of them by witches a few times before they inevitably kick back). I like the dynamic Hansel and Gretel have, and I honestly think it’s a shame that more mainstream sorts of movies haven’t done more with that sort of thing.
So far as the villains go, the only one who has any real sort of character to her (although I am partial to punky hedgehog-witch) is Famke Janssen’s Grand Witch Muriel. Janssen hasn’t played all that many really villainous roles – the last one prior to this that I can think of was Xenia Onatopp from Goldeneye – and that’s a shame, because she’s really quite good at them. She certainly seems to be enjoying herself here, chewing the scenery like nobody’s business and hissing out vicious little utterances as people explode around her. You couldn’t say she has any actual depth, as she’s really just completely evil with no redeeming qualities at all, but she’s a lot of fun to watch.
So, wrap-up – some people hate this movie. A lot of critics certainly did. On the other hand, there are also people who really like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and I’m one of them. It’s a somewhat lunkheaded tale, true, and certainly not without its share of flaws and plot contrivances, but it’s not trying to be anything more than a fun little fairy tale action movie with big guns, and it pulls that off just fine. If that sounds to you like it’s right up your alley, you’re probably right. If not, maybe it’ll surprise you.
I am slightly disappointed that they never worked in the ‘nibble, nibble little mouse’ line from the original, though. I bet they could’ve gotten some awesome one-liners from that.
Heather’s rating: 3 out of 5 insulin shots.
Heather’s review: A while back Eunice and I collaborated on a 2013 article centered around our opinions of the year’s upcoming films. There was the good, the forgettable, and then the just plain bad. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters had its gritty fairy tale boots planted firmly in the “bad movie” camp. A few days after the article went up I started hearing rumors that it wasn’t actually terrible, and that if you wanted something silly and fun to entertain you for a while this would do the trick. I decided that I could give it a try, but only if Eunice agreed to watch it with me and do a co-review. At best I’d enjoy it and eat some crow, at worst it would still make for an interesting review.
It all started innocently enough. We went into the the theater together and sat down, alone, in the darkened room. Eventually a few other moviegoers began to trickle in and the previews came on. We made a few jokes here and there, along with serious commentary about what movies we did and did not want to see. Suddenly Eunice turns to me and says “I didn’t tell you about the first time I saw a dead body.”
Me: “What the hell, Eunice?”
Eunice, laughing: “Mind you, I don’t mean the first time I saw someone die. He was already dead.” *more laughter* “It was also my first time seeing a naked dude.”
I turn back to the screen and say “Well that’s going in the review.”
She then regales me with a tale that began with her going to a funeral parlor at five years old and ended with her wandering into the embalming room to find a dead naked man lying on a table with tubes coming out of him.
The moral of the story is: Don’t mess with Eunice. She’s seen things.
Eunice’s rating: “Then Gretel gave her a push that drove her far into it, and shut the iron door, and fastened the bolt. Oh then she began to howl quite horribly, but Gretel ran away, and the godless witch was miserably burnt to death.”
Eunice’s review: Okay it wasn’t quite that out of left field (pretty close, but not quite). We had been talking about horror movies and the Stephen King-y Twin Peaks-y town I grew up in, and crazy stories. Besides it was the fourth time we met, isn’t that when you bring up the dead body stories? Or is that the fifth and I committed a slight social faux pas? Not to mention Heather totally plied me with the Devil’s ginger beer (it had flames on the can and everything, so you know it was intense).
As for Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, it’s a movie I’d been looking forward to since I’d first heard of it when it was still in preproduction. Having seen Tommy Wirkola’s Dead Snow, I was actually quite impressed by how much fun it was and figured that kind of twisted but goofy humor would be the only way for something with a title that silly could be pulled off. Add in how much I like fairy tale movies period, and that it had Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton who I like quite a bit (I also like Famke Janssen, but didn’t realize she was in it until I saw the movie), I was more than a little excited about seeing it.
Did I have no misgivings? Of course I had misgivings, indie or foreign filmmakers tend to have their ideas gobbled up and steamrolled by Hollywood, the movie was pushed back a year, and the trailers didn’t look that hot (but having seen it, I imagine it was hard to get it’s quirky tone into a forty-five second ad). I still wanted to see it.
Heather: Yes, ’tis true. I left out the stories of the murder woods and haunted homes you lived in. I couldn’t decide if that was going to make what you said in the theater sound more or less creepy (hint: WAY more creepy). As to your question about your social faux pas (and it was one): It’s dead bodies on the fourth date, naked bodies on the second, and dead naked bodies on the sixth. I can understand your confusion, though; East Coast etiquette is a bit complex.
I actually didn’t dislike Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, despite how much as its stupid name wanted me to. It was all kinds of goofy, but I think the movie did well treading the line between silly and serious, and that’s a tough balance. Oftentimes movies that try can’t figure out how to keep the weight of the plot heavy enough to keep you concerned for its characters but light enough to get laughs that don’t ruin the tone. When a bewitched man walk into a tavern and spontaneously exploded all over the patrons I realized I had nothing to fear from in that respect.
On that note, this movie is surprisingly gory. Body parts will fly. Multiple head-squishings will take place. When there aren’t body parts flying across the screen Ninja Scroll-style, the design of the witches is going to gross you out sufficiently. You might want to keep that in mind if you’re squeamish.
Eunice: When Young Gretel stabs the Gingerbread House Witch and ends up just soaked with blood, I felt relieved that it seemed Wirkola had been left mostly to his own devices. But the moment where H&G had me was definitely the milk bottles with the missing children drawings on them, that was so darkly funny.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. H&G is loosely based on the fairy tale. Only instead of an evil stepmother abandoning the children in the woods because of a famine in the land, the mother instructs the father to take them into the woods because Something Bad is about to happen. When neither parent comes to get them the siblings wander around until they come across a gingerbread house. They go inside only to be taken captive by a witch who stuffs Hansel full of sweets to fatten him up and forces Gretel to do menial labor. Then one day Gretel puts the hurt on the witch and Hansel and Gretel finish her off by watching her burn to death in her own oven. Thus begin their careers as witch hunters. The opening credits double to show time passing as the two keep ending up in the medieval version of newspapers proclaiming their victories and children saving.
And so we come to a small town where several children have gone missing and the Sheriff (has Peter Stormare ever not played a sleazeball?) about to burn a woman who we know can’t be a witch because she isn’t all crusty and gross. Before anyone gets a chance to claim she turned them into a newt, Gretel (now Gemma Arterton) and Hansel (now Jeremy Renner, who can check my teeth for rot any day) step in. Mr. Mayor has decided to hire pros to find the children and take down the witch(es) responsible.
Heather: Gee, I wonder if the sheriff is going to have a problem with this and try to take Hansel and Gretel out of the picture later?
- Apparently witch drawings all have to have their boobs hanging out.
- Eating a lot of crawly things makes you explode.
- “You wanna swim in my healing waters?” is an incredibly smooth pick-up line.
- The film was not screened in advance for critics, which might explain why some of them savaged it to the degree that they did.
- Going by its appearance on the inside, it would seem to be more properly termed a candy-coated house.
- Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are probably best known for their roles in, respectively, The Avengers and Quantum of Solace, wherein he, as Hawkeye, wielded a bow, and she (I presume; I haven’t seen QoS yet, but it is a Bond movie) used a gun. Here, their signature weapons are reversed – she wields a crossbow (and an awesome one it is, too), whereas he totes around a variety of firearms.
- This was Famke Janssen’s first role performing in prosthetic makeup.
- In addition to Hansel’s, er… little problem (which I won’t give away), Gretel was originally planned to suffer from an eating disorder as a result of her treatment by the witch, but this was eventually (and, I think, wisely) cut from the script.