From time to time someone, somewhere, probably in a dark room with a typewriter (I'm old school!) fuelled by excessive quantities of coffee, comes up with a good idea for the premise of a film. I don't mean the Roger Corman theory of producing a movie poster and working back from there, but something that makes you think “yeah, that could work”. I'd like to think that's how Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was born, an idea emerging from the depths of someone's mind and growing into an interesting and original concept. Unfortunately with this film the idea was probably the only good thing.
The tale begins with a little back story based upon the Grimm fairytale everyone knows. Two young children, the titular Hansel & Gretel live with their parents in a cabin deep in the woods. One evening their father takes them out and leaves them in a clearing warning them not to move. As children are wont to do they wander and soon discover a house made of cake and sweets and all manner of tasty things. Unfortunately the house belongs to a witch and after an altercation the siblings destroy her in a furnace. Fast forward several years and H & G are now feared witch hunters.
In a small town somewhere in Germany an over-excited sheriff (Peter Stormare) and his team of deputies, who appear marked for death from the beginning, are about to burn the beautiful Mina (Pihla Viitala) for the crime of witchcraft. With perfect timing our heroes Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) arrive to prove Mina isn't a witch and announce that they have been charged by the mayor (Rainer Bock) to investigate the towns missing children problems. As is the way of things there is obviously much more to it as Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) is involved and has hatched a devious plot to render her kind invulnerable to fire, thus making them invincible.
Firstly the good points. Director Tommy Wirkola has blended several film types together reasonably well in creating the H & G world. We have steam punk, gothic, fantasy and a little campness all mixed together in a huge, budget busting cauldron. The sets are passably atmospheric if a little staged but where the film really gets going is in two specific areas; the arsenal and the witch design. The weaponry that H & G seem to have at their disposal could easily have been lifted from one of Renner's other films as it is a little more Bourne than you would expect in a medieval world, but somehow it works. The action rattles along at enough of a pace to avoid the audience finding time to stop and question any of the potential silliness. As for the witches, it really does seem like the design crew have had fun coming up with a multitude of styles. We have a pinch Clive Barker, a dash of Romero and a splash of Argento, and to be honest it makes for quite an interesting collection.
There are problems here though. The film itself is just a little dull. The plot is predictable and the twists are hinted at very early with a very unsubtle nudge and wink. The script is somewhat nonsensical and only the pace of the film stops this becoming more obvious. The acting is also a disappointment. I'm not sure Renner has much more in his locker (Hurt Locker?) than a performance this side of cardboard but Arterton should be a little disappointed with herself. Famke Janssen overacts when given the chance but as she reportedly said she took on the role to pay off her mortgage we know all we need to about her commitment to the project.
I also had trouble with some of the imagery which at times seemed ill-judged. There is a witch torture scene that, while I understand is fantasy and maybe not as impactful, was still a little strange. The violence and fights also seem to swing between purely fantastical and over the top and realistic and gritty, ans the balance is never quite right.
Ultimately this is a disappointing production from a decent original idea. There are good things here but in the end it's all a bit of a mess.