Photo: Paramount Pictures
You know, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters didn’t have to be terrible. True, it’s the kind of concept that presages yet another po-mo, slo-mo, wink-wink action variation on something supposedly classical. But much like its title, the movie overstates its case. Fairy tales and myths have always worked more as armatures for our own imaginary wanderings rather than fully fleshed-out stories. So the film starts out at least half a step behind its own audience — it’s too in love with the idea of Grimm standbys Hansel and Gretel growing up to be heavily armed, badass witch slayers, as if this is the first time anyone has thought of it. As a result, the film fails to actually do anything with the idea, except to keep highlighting how awesome it thinks it is.
The movie opens with a slightly darker variation on the classic fairy tale, with young Hansel and Gretel being captured by, and eventually prevailing against, a hideous witch who lures them with her candy house. But all that’s prologue, as narration by a grown-up Hansel (Jeremy Renner) reminds us. Now he and his sister (Gemma Arterton, still stunning) roam the countryside dispensing justice against witches with an arsenal of anachronistically elaborate weapons. This time out, they have to contend with a particularly powerful witch (Famke Janssen) who appears to have found a way that will allow her and her fellow witches to blend in among ordinary humans. For some reason, this doesn’t prevent Janssen, one of our most underappreciated actresses, from being uniquely wasted by the movie, which makes her spend most of its running time hissing and shrieking and covered in garish makeup.
The good news is that the actors appear to be having fun. The bad news is that we’re not. I may be the world’s only fan of Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, but that much-maligned film at least had the right idea: It actually tried to build real characters (in its case, the Grimms themselves) in order to play them off a cast of iconic fairy-tale figures in ironic situations. You would think Hansel & Gretel would have the good sense to try and turn its two lead characters into figures we could relate to — seeing as how centuries of children have already done so. But the movie can’t be bothered. Instead, it plays out as a series of postures, constantly repeating its central conceit — framing our heroes in ostentatiously heroic poses, ladling on the gore effects and the slow motion and the exploding bullets and state-of-the-art crossbows and whatnot. It’s a lot of noise and whooshing camera effects and little else — frantic, yet lifeless. If the similarly situated Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter took itself too seriously, the problem with Hansel & Gretel is that it doesn’t quite take itself seriously enough — which sounds insane, but it’s not too much to ask that the movie go beyond its one and only joke. Instead, amid all the fake Sturm und Drang, all we hear is the movie giggling to itself.