Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
The important thing to learn about killing witches is that they don’t like it when you set their collective ass on fire. Or, to put it another way, when film-makers set out to do fairy stories, they’d better do it with a sense of humour or the film will die on its ass. So here we go with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). Our orphaned brother and sister team, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), are cast into the roles of protectors of the innocent and specialist witch exterminators. For the purposes of this film, they are hired by the Mayor of Augsburg to deal with a rash of disappearances. Children, whose faces are plastered on to the local milk bottles (the film is making an effort to mirror contemporary sensibilities, particularly through Gretel’s willingness to swear like a trooper in this pre-Enlightenment, postmodern version of a Germanic township before the electric lightbulb, but not the milk bottle, has been invented) have been spirited away in anticipation of a “blood moon” event due in three days time (always give your heroes a deadline — pun intended). So our heroes go off into the nearest pub to mingle and pick up the local gossip which enables them to meet Ben (Thomas Mann) their biggest fan. This is the ultimate nerd who’s been obsessively collecting their press clippings and now oozes enthusiasm in the hope of getting them to sign his book. Meanwhile Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare), the spooky local witchfinder with Wild West aspirations to greatness in law enforcement, is paying the greedy rubes to form a posse and go out searching for the missing children at night. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but they always say food tastes better when it walks into the forest fresh.
Now a few thoughts about the backstory. Isn’t it just weird when a father takes his two children off into the woods and, after ensuring they are thoroughly lost, blows out the candle in his lantern and disappears? And all that “gingerbread” the witch had Hansel eat. . . That would give him a really bad case of diabetes, wouldn’t it? And why would the children be immune to the spells cast by the witches they now hunt as adults? Hmmm. Some deep mysteries on display here including where the insulin is coming from to keep Hansel alive and how come they’ve developed this array of firearms before their time. Ah, such are the problems when you take your fairy stories into a kind of steampunk fantasy version of history. Everything gets all mixed up. And, so long as it’s all done with a sense of style and fun, we go along for the ride. Which brings me to the nub of the problem. At its heart, this is a straightforward action adventure with two heroes rescuing twelve children from some bad witches. So what market is this simple story aiming at? Obviously not the children’s market because there a fairly consistent pattern of swearing and some of the violence is fairly graphic. It’s not played for shock value as a horror movie. There are jokes and no attempts to produce boo moments. The tone is very matter-of-fact. Shoot this witch, decapitate that one.
As an aside, this is a witch-heavy film which makes me wonder what a film has to do to be considered misogynistic. The aim of the script is to show us violence against women on a fairly epic scale. Both the good and the bad females come in for a steady battering or eviscerating as the minutes tick by. All the major women are killed with the exception of Gretel. She gets to be an honorary man, swearing like it’s about to go out of fashion, senselessly violent, and wandering off with the three surviving men at the end to kill more women (none of whom get an open casket funeral when she’s finished with them). What does it say about a film when the only woman who survives does so at the price of killing as many other women as she can?
Then, of course, we come to the “love interests”. Gretel has the nerd and Edward (Derek Mears) a troll, in hot pursuit, i.e. she doesn’t get anyone normal to lust after her. Hansel is very taken by Mina (Pihla Viitala), a young lady accused of being a witch. They have a very chaste encounter in the woods for all the partial nudity. Yet Hansel seems strangely unaffected by this sexual encounter. He’s one of these love ‘em and leave ‘em types who seems uninterested in the romantic side of love. Which leaves us with Muriel (Famke Janssen) the ringleader of the coven who doesn’t have anyone to love but is able to do all the usual witchy things like fly around on bits of twig, cast spells, and look entirely human when she feels the need. And herein lies the real failure to engage the audience.
I’m all for magic systems that work. That’s the lynchpin of true fantasy. I also have no problem with black and white systems to use the magical force. It seems eminently reasonable that if there’s a source of magic available to people with the right sensitivities, they should be able to choose how to use it. But this film fails to develop any kind of coherent explanation of who witches are and, more importantly, whether they pass on their powers to their children. Indeed, the characterisation of witches is almost at the level of a cartoon or comic book. They gibber, caper around and fight when cornered. There’s very little effort to make them frightening. They’re just there and because pesky humans can overpower the weaker members of the coven, they want to develop the ability to resist fire. That way, they can walk away from the burning as soon as the retaining ropes are destroyed by the flames. I suppose this means they can already withstand the removal of head and/or heart, being pulled apart by four strong horses, and so on (and that no-one uses chains to hold them in the fire).
Yet, despite all these manifest failures, this is not a bad film. It’s just a film that fails to realise its potential. There’s an underlying sense of fun about it and, with a running time (not counting the extended opening and closing credits, of about 80 minutes, it knows when to quit before we all run out of patience. I suppose this means, in modern terms, it’s not very good value for money if you walk through the cinema door at full price, but I’ve watched the DVD as a rental and it’s excellent value. For the record, it seems to have collected $225 million at the box office on a production budget of $50 million. Since that represents a profit before the downloads and DVD sales come in, there’s already talk of a sequel. I’m not sure this would be a good idea but you can’t argue with the profit-driven when they scent more profit. Hence, if you can access Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters for a few dollars, lay in some popcorn and prepare for a blast of fun brainlessness.