#%&*ing Witches!: Or Yes, I’m Actually Going to Talk About Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
by Zoe Chevat | 12:34 pm, January 28th, 2013
I know what you’re thinking. “Oh, dear God, why.” That is an excellent place to start from. Unfortunately, that’s just the start. H&G is, quite obvious to anyone who has so much as seen a billboard for it, DOA. This is not the part that is interesting; plenty of dead cinematic bodies show up in theaters every year, increasingly so in the empty, hollow months just following award-season cutoff. What is interesting is why such an obviously cold cadaver is showing up at all, even metaphorically. Such a crime of film is as apparent as any corporeal evidence; we cluster around the edges of the taped-off scene muttering amongst ourselves, ‘why, why did this happen?’
So, in the spirit of continued analogy, I am here to perform an autopsy on the long-dead corpse of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. This procedure is not due to a genetic lack of the “fun” gland in this anatomist’s body. On the contrary, “fun” is what Hansel & Gretel could have used a good deal more of, and what it so agonizingly lacks.
(Contained therein are a few spoilers. How much one might care about them we leave entirely to the reader’s discretion.)
In this sequel, as I suppose one could call it, to the classic story, the titular duo are all grown up and badass after some traumatic childhood abandonment and a little incident involving a candy house. They become bounty hunters-cum-nasty cops, tromping the muddy streets of medieval-esque towns beset by a plague of witches. When one town reports a rash of child-snatching, it’s up to the sassy siblings (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) to solve the mystery, rescue the kids, and kill anything that flies too slowly on a broom. They also have to deal with pesky fans, have important revelations about their past, and make sure poor, diabetic Hansel gets his meds. (This is the movie’s one clever idea, and it is, naturally, thrown away until the climax.)
If you absolutely, positively have to make an action-centric blockbuster off of a second-tier fairy tale, there’s no reason to play coy. Swing for the fences and swing hard, and it is here that our trundling ball of F/X falls short before older Hansel (a hungover-sounding Renner) gets his in his first voice-over. The initial idea is so ludicrous, so meant to capitalize on the slow-rolling trend of harder- gritter- darker- fairy tales (now that vampires are off the Hollywood pitch table for the foreseeable future), that there is no reason that this mess should be taking itself seriously. Yet, it does, and direly so.
As we roamed along, I got the feeling that H&G would have been best served by aiming for a tone somewhere in the vicinity of 1999’sThe Mummy. Granted, a mix of high production and earnest camp is a hard mark to hit, especially when it’s clear that no one involved cares all that much. (Both of the movie’s stars look like they’re annoyed that they had to get out of bed for this.) But a marked absence of self-awareness is a death knell here, where it is a boon for even straight-laced absurdist moneymakers like the Resident Evil series. I bring up these counterexamples as markers of possibility for a production where your core idea is, frankly, dumb as rocks. For here is a realm where almost any strong choice could prove better than none at all.
It is obvious from the design details and toss-off ideas that the production desperately wanted a steampunk setting. Yet, for no particular reason, the story is still set in a vaguely medieval period, despite the frequent and unhindered use of, among other things; automatic weapons, a clock-wound wristwatch with a timer, machined wire, and -no, not kidding- insulin shots. While being empirically for anachronism, everything has its place, and steampunk’s place is not to show up, unexplained and without apparent humor, in the superstitious 13th century Black Forest of Germany. Like every single other part of the film, no decisions are being made anywhere. H&G isn’t simply bad; it’s lazy. “Oh for God’s sake,” the production seems to be saying with a put-upon sigh, “Let’s get this done with so we can knock off to the next thing.”
Everything, from the costumes to the score from the usually dependable
Hans Zimmer, swings wildly between playing it straight and bold-faced tackiness. (Correction: Atli Örvarsson is the composer, who works under Zimmer. Given what I say about his score, I’m sure he would have been pleased to let Zimmer take the credit for this one.) The soundtrack moves from ethereal choir singing in orchestral pieces, to screeching heavy-metal guitar riffs, often within the space of a single scene. The contrast could be played as humor, if it seemed intentional at all. Let it be said that either direction would have been fine; H&G is nothing if not a missed opportunity to produce a camp classic! But both, sometimes side-by-side, can be off-putting. 300-style over/under-cranked slick actions sequences are broken up by cheesy wirework of the breed more at home in 1970s television shows. Chillingly grotesque body horror runs alongside practical creature makeup that would cause the perpetrator to be voted from Face-Off. A quick action piece tacked as an epilogue right before the end credits has more consistency and panache than almost the rest of the film, adding to the general state of confusion I found myself sitting in after the lights came up.
But, by far, one of the most confusing parts of this show is the unnecessary tip towards an R-rating. The movie earns its R through repeated and laboriously dropped F-bombs and other four-letter-words, and its frequent gore. Not one to mind gore, I didn’t understand its truly gratuitous place here, for it adds nothing to the experience. Not tension, not a sense of danger, not even the sick fun of Tarantino-esque cartoonishness. Watching a witch get squashed by a falling tree for slapstick and watching a woman get burned alive by a mob in front of her husband are given equal screen time, to no good end. All this is meant to grant the film a hard edge that it neither earns nor deserves. Bear in mind, the movie was shot two years ago, shelved, and brought out following the watershed of The Avengers so that the studio could capitalize on Renner’s recognizability, or at least claim it as a financial loss. H&G didn’t even hold press screenings pre-theatrical release. If those holding the reins were set to capitalize on this venture at all, they should have chucked out a couple things and stuck with a far more lucrative PG-13.
We can spend all day lamenting what could have been. However, if this bloated waste of morgue space doesn’t give a damn, well %#* it. Neither should we.
Zoe Chevat holds an MFA in Film and Animation from CalArts, where she was part of the Experimental Animation program. She is currently illustrating a backup feature for the forthcoming original graphic novel The Reason for Dragons, by Chris Northrop and Jeff Stokely, which will be released by Archaia this spring. She lives and works in Los Angeles as both a writer and artist, and, as a relocated East Coaster, still finds the first part of this sentence unnerving.