Like a Piece of Candy, “Witch Hunters” is Sweet, but Offers no Nutritional Value.
On a recent episode of Late Show with David Letterman, actor Jeremy Renner, double Oscar-nominee for The Town and The Hurt Locker, explained that he made his latest movie, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, just for fun. After seeing it Thursday night, I can attest that it is fun… a lot of fun… but that’s about all it is. There’s not an ounce of substance to it. Sometimes, though, that’s all you need to be thoroughly entertained.
Breezing by with a barely 90-minute running time, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters compresses the original story of Hansel & Gretel into a brisk introduction that takes place before the opening credits. Then, during a terrific animated credit sequence where woodcuts sometimes come to life, we learn that since escaping their trap in a witch’s candy house, H & G have grown up to become celebrity witch hunters.
That’s all the background necessary to begin this particular tale of hunting and killing an evil witch who the townspeople believe is responsible for the abduction of 11 of their children. Hansel & Gretel interrupt the burning of a suspected witch at the hands of the sheriff (the familiarly-diabolical Peter Stormare) and it’s non-stop action from there.
From everything I imagined about this movie, it would be Hansel (Renner) kicking witch butt, perhaps compensating for Gretel (Gemma Arterton), his weaker female sibling. However, in one of the fun twists, it’s the complete opposite. It is Gretel who’s the badass. Hansel is a wide-eyed innocent, nervous around women and crippled by the need to regularly take an injection because of the amount of candy the witch forced him to eat as a child. (Diabetes, anyone?)
Because of this, Renner is a little bland, but Arterton is fantastic. So is the big bad, Muriel, played by Famke Janssen. She’s been creepy to me ever since her stint as a sex-changed (yes that’s “changed”, not “charged”) cougar on Nip/Tuck. Her unique ability in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is that she can alter the appearance of her face, which makes her a “grand witch”, or some such nonsense. She’s actually scarier with her own visage than when CGI effects are badly applied over her face.
Although the action sequences lean a little toward professional wrestling (both Hansel and Gretel get tossed around a lot), they’re mostly clever considering they’re on the ground while the witches are speeding overhead on brooms that look more like horribly-mangled branches than actual sweeping devices. Over time, our heroes have developed some nifty steam punk weapons to slow them down. One clever trap is reminiscent of Resident Evil.
As you can imagine, there are buckets of gore, but not necessarily delivered by the methods you’d think. Sure, there are beheadings, but more often there are complete head-smashings. A friendly troll (Derek Mears) has a particularly heavy foot. The effects aren’t outstanding, but it all goes by so fast, it doesn’t matter. However, the movie does offer some of the most effective 3D effects I’ve seen. Sure, it’s mostly carnage and destruction flying off the screen, but I don’t know that it’s ever made me actually jump like it did here… several times.
Midway through Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, the movie gets a little talky as there are attempts to embellish the backstory and explain the villain’s plot. Just when I began to think, “This is getting a little boring”, the action picks up and the climax arrives before you even expect it. Co-writer (with Dante Harper)/Director Tommy Wirkola certainly knows how to deliver what the audience wants. If you’ve seen Dead Snow, which he also directed, you’ll know exactly what to expect.
And if you expect nothing else, you won’t be disappointed.