"Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" makes no bones about its gooey, blood-drenched, F-word-spouting R rating, but if it hasn't been edited for content, it nonetheless feels heavily truncated, its first act leading directly into an extended climax where the only depth comes from its 3-D theatrical presentation. Director Tommy Wirkola (2009's "Dead Snow
"), working on his first American studio production, gives the visuals style, but can't do much with a repetitive screenplay by Dante Harper that never settles down long enough to truly be about anything other than the bare narrative essentials. It also doesn't help that said film expends its standout moments by the ten-minute mark and can never quite capture the same palpable danger, atmosphere, and imagination again.
"Many years ago," when they were children, siblings Hansel (Cedric Eich) and Gretel (Alea Sophia Doudodimos) were abandoned in the forest by their woodcutter father and happened upon a house made of candy. Dwelling inside was a nasty, cannibalistic witch who wished to fatten up the children before eating them. Hansel and Gretel turned the tables on her at the last second, pushing the witch into the stove and burning her alive. This prologue, which basically is the whole of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, is tautly shot and edited and close to horrifying, the decaying, psychotic candy witch establishing herself as the scariest incarnation of this character in the story's history of adaptations. It is followed up by an impressively lavish animated opening credits sequence that paints a history of Hansel and Gretel's journey from hopeless orphans to butt-kicking adult warriors (now played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton). Summoned to the town of Augsburg by Mayor Engleman (Rainer Bock), Hansel and Gretel lock horns with the controlling, heretic-accusing sheriff (Peter Stormare) while vowing to find the witch responsible for kidnapping some of the village's children and making her pay. As a gathering evil approaches with the onset of the Blood Moon, their mission ultimately leads them into the lair of master witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) and her brainwashed minions.
"Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is disappointing for a number of reasons, not the least being its squelching of the promise it held at the start, but one thing the film does not do is overstay its welcome. If there was ever any development or exploration into the relationship between its title brother and sister, director Tommy Wirkola has shaved it down to a few moments of teasing and playful nudging. Otherwise, they have no time to do much more than spit out one-liners while fighting various witches to the death. After a while, the incessant chasing and battlingnot to mention the movie's random woodsy settings and unpronounced special effectsbegin to resemble less a big-budget action picture and more a cheesy, "Xena"-style small screen fantasy from the mid-'90s. It's really rather surprising that Lucy Lawless never shows up.
Jeremy Renner (2012's "The Bourne Legacy
") and Gemma Arterton (2010's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
") star as revisionist versions of literature icons Hansel and Gretel, but not a lot is asked of them beyond physical demands and the swift brandishing of the occasional quips ("I hate to break it to you," says Gretel before blowing away one such hag, "but you won't be having an open casket"). That they are playing roughly the same age and yet are fifteen years apart in real life is a non-issue, thanks to Renner's youthfulness, but it is a shame that more isn't asked of them from a, you know, acting standpoint. As master witch Muriel, Famke Janssen (2012's "Taken 2
") is terribly underused, not even making half the impression that Monique Ganderton (2011's "Sucker Punch
"), nightmarish under layers of ghastly make-up as the Candy Witch, does with just a few minutes of screen time. Thomas Mann (2012's "Fun Size
"), as a fanboy of Hansel and Gretel's, and Pihla Viitala, as Hansel's love interest, the ginger-haired Mina, would both make better impressions under sunnier circumstances; as is, they are given little to do and too often fade into the background.
"Whatever you do, don't eat the fucking candy," Hansel warns everyone when, in the finale, they come upon the fateful cottage from his childhood. The line is good-humored, but also a tad cornball, which could be an accurate description of "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" as a whole. It's appreciative that everyone was on board for an unashamed, R-rated fantasy horror film, yet one only has to compare the first ten minutes to the rest of the film to tell that the strongest material was that which came from the original source. Ripe with foreboding and then spun into something even darker, it's an attention-grabbing beginning to a motion picture that loses its way moments after diverging from the Brothers Grimm. What follows isn't bad so much as it is uninspired, running in circles while wearing the viewer down with one too-quickly-cut action scene after the next. Surely, the script must have been meatier before the finished product was delayed by ten months and whittled down to 88 minutes. If "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" leaves something to be desired, thank goodness it doesn't waste much time reaching its rushed conclusion.