With Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Peter Stormare, Famke Janssen, Pihla Viitala. Written by Tommy Wirkola and Dante Harper. Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Rated R for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language. 88 minutes.
You don’t go into something called HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS expecting to see “Macbeth.” It’s an R-rated take on the Grimm Brothers fairy tale about the two children who outwit a wicked witch who lives in a house made of candy and cookies. It has lots of gore and an all-too-brief nude scene. Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are now all grown up with the brother/sister team hitting the road to rid towns of their witches.
While staying in the roughly 17th century time frame of the fairy tale, the movie liberally borrows not from horror stories but from crime fiction. Viewers who have seen recent movies like “Jack Reacher” and “Gangster Squad” will note various similarities, starting with the outsiders brought in because the established law – in this case Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare) – is in over his head as the town’s children start to disappear. Armed with retro-high tech weapons (like a semi-automatic crossbow), Hansel and Gretel have built a reputation of getting their witches.
Although the proceedings are pretty silly when you think about it, the filmmakers don’t dumb it down. This is on the B-level of something like the recent Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, “The Last Stand” (also with Stormare as a heavy). There are quips. There are action scenes. And, surprisingly, there are some character moments.
Hansel and Gretel have a back story that extends beyond the fairy tale and we don’t get it all at once. Further, while the young Ben (Thomas Mann) idolizes them and even keeps a scrapbook of their adventures, Hansel and Gretel are no superheroes. They get batted around quite a bit by the various witches, led by Muriel (Famke Janssen), who is orchestrating everything for a purpose. The villains are powerful and they are smart, and we have to take it on faith that the good guys will prevail because it doesn’t always seem that way. Also making things interesting is the presence of Mina (lovely Finnish actress Pihla Viitala) who serves as a love interest for Hansel but has secrets of her own.
The story is self-contained and speeds by in 88 minutes but there is an open ending. Should some good magic take place at the box office, the makers of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” seem ready to carry on the story. That may not be necessary, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, Renner and Arterton make a good crime-fighting… er, witch hunting team, handling the action, the jokes, and the serious moments while playing it all straight.
In short if the very title has you rolling your eyes, don’t even bother. If, however, it makes you think you’d like to see the further adventures of the fairy tale characters, by all means take a chance. However there’s no need to waste extra money on the 3D glasses. This review is based on the 2D version and at no time was there a feeling that a scene would have played better if the gore or the spell casting was flying out at the audience. ***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.