In Freedom, author Jonathan Franzen compares pop music hits to chicklets: their flavor is easily accessible, and when you’re through with them, you spit them out and move onto something else. He might say the same about the MTV-Paramount-MGM collaboration Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, an explosive, bloody rampage through the dark forests of Germany.
In the Brothers Grimm's German children’s story, young Hansel and Gretel are the offspring of a former marriage, and both jealousy and poverty give their step-mother reason to nag their father into driving them away. After being abandoned in the woods, they stumble upon a candy house and are captured by a witch inside, only to eventually kill her and escape. When they come home, loaded down with the witch’s gold, they and their father live happily ever. Their step-mother is now long-gone, having moved out because of the father’s grief over the loss of his children.
Norwegian co-writer and director Tommy Wirkola’s adaptation of the Grimm’s story is a bit grimmer, with Hans Zimmer’s angry Germanic beat pulsing through the film from young Hansel and Gretel’s first showdown with a witch in Candy Land to its vicious end. Importantly, they learn in their first fight that, for some reason, the zaps of a witch’s wand don’t hurt them, and also that witches are most effectively, and brutally, destroyed with fire. These two facts help them overpower the witch and cast her into her oven, a la the fairytale.
From there, Wirkola and co-writer Dante Harper veer severely off source, into the uncharted haunted woods of old Germany, where the now-famous, and much older, witch hunters Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) are investigating the mystery of why witches have kidnapped 11 children from a dank, atmospheric village. Tensions are running high. The town sheriff is ready to burn any suspect, and would if Hansel and Gretel didn’t step in and rescue the ruby beauty Mina (Pihla Viitala), his latest capture. There to witness the rescue is young super-fan Ben (Thomas Mann), who soon shadows the pair.
With all the minor characters introduced, Wirkola whisks the hunter siblings into the forest to do what they, and he, do best: hunt and kill (or film the death of) witches. They drop in on a disgusting hag and commence a knock-down, drag-out fight as the witch tries to escape on her “broom” with the duo crashing through the woods in pursuit. The witch is a dead-end, but she possesses a clue which tells the intrepid duo that a once-a-generation sinister plot will soon come to fruition.
Enter the grand witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who looks something like a birchbark branch for half the movie, and her usual, enchanting self the rest of the time. She has a plan for the kidnapped children, and for Gretel, who is more than just a witch hunter. From there, the plot points are strung together on flimsy bits of profanity-laced dialogue, leading from witch hunt to witch hunt and revelation to revelation until the culminating battle that ends as predictably as if it had stuck to the original story.
Since it doesn’t, Hansel and Gretel struggle through abandonment issues about their parents’ presumed rejection. Gretel suffers from the memory of her father’s final order to remain in the woods as he blew out his lantern and disappeared forever. Hansel prefers self-medicating through denial, and daily shots of insulin to treat his diabetes – a lingering side-effect of his youthful Candy Land adventure.
Killing witches seems to help them cope with their childhood loss, and they do so with relish. Witches explode, are cut to shreds, beheaded, and burned. Would-be witch-hunters suffer similar fates. Through it all, Hansel and Gretel wander the woods with a child-like sense of security and curiosity – particularly Renner’s Hansel, who is about as oblivious as a ten-year-old would be to Mina’s advances. They are completely unfazed by the death and destruction all around them, and that’s what Wirkola seems to want. Like “Clash of the Titans” and “Immortals” before them, the bloody action tastes fine. It’s easily ingested and enjoyed for the 88 minutes it runs. At the end, it leaves no aftertaste.
Image credit: Paramount Pictures Corporation/Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters