Airy, Airheaded "Hansel & Gretel" Less Than Impactful

“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine, stocked with attention-grabbing but incongruous moving parts, working in concert to achieve nothing. Its unsteady mix of action, gore, and comedy lends a kind of seasickness to the proceedings, its failures not stemming from what it is, but what it’s not. The picture is wildly unsure of itself, trying to be everything to everyone, but the end result is a lot closer to being nothing for no one. If the film did just one thing well, it would be firmly rooted in “passable” territory, but in overshooting so many different targets, it occasionally flops around like a fish out of water.

Jeremy Renner (“The Bourne Legacy”) and Gemma Arterton (“Quantum Of Solace”) star as the eponymous duo that famously faced down a witch and lived to tell about it (as depicted in a pre-credits sequence). Now, they’ve grown into adults, primed to hunt and kill as many witches as they can find. The rub is that these witches, led by Famke Janssen (“X-Men”) as Muriel, are growing stronger and becoming less vulnerable to fire. When called upon by a local mayor to stop the abduction of his village’s children, Hansel and Gretel cross paths with a rival group of more militant witch hunters, led by the town Sheriff (Peter Stormare).

Writer-director Tommy Wirkola (“Dead Snow”) and co-writer Dante Harper have no clue how to handle exposition, so the first act is accordingly scattershot. Story beats come and go without relevance to one another and some scenes might have been cut altogether if the running time wasn’t under 90 minutes. The comedy element is introduced early on, but it’s limited to four letter words that are only funny because of their context. Considering that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were producers on the project, it’s disappointing that there isn’t more of a comedic edge to the dialogue. Gretel dropping f-bombs is funny in theory but it adds nothing to the character or the journey she takes over the course of the narrative.

The cast does the best they can with a patchwork of a script. Renner lacks the personality and physical stature that his role requires, but he generally plays well off of the gorgeous Arterton, who still hasn’t found the breakout role she deserves. Janssen looks bored when appearing in the flesh, but under copious amounts of witch make-up she seems rejuvenated, oozing a kind of charisma that she’s never relayed before.

Despite the picture’s narrative limitations, the effects work is commendable and the action is well choreographed. A troll named Edward – an unlikely ally of Gretel – is an interesting mix of CGI and Henson-like puppetry, while the witch transformations are almost seamless. The violence is appropriately silly, bordering on graphic but maintaining a certain level of surrealism. Wirkola’s direction of action sequences is pleasantly lucid and easy to follow. There’s real weight and a sense of geography to each action beat that’s hard to come by in the MTV quick-cut era (ironically, “Hansel & Gretel” is an MTV Film).

Ultimately, it’s a grab bag of a film – and a mixed one, at that – but these are waters that audiences should test for themselves. Some viewers won’t find a thing here to like, but others might find it to be just fleet-of-foot enough to be a worthy 90 minute diversion on a rainy afternoon. What it’s most certainly not is the kind of worthless disaster that 2011’s sword-and-stoner comedy, “Your Highness,” was. No lives will be changed by “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” but it’s so harmless that I can’t imagine anyone being too upset that they spent an hour and a half on it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: January 25, 2013
Studio: Paramount Pictures
Director: Tommy Wirkola Screenwriter: Dante Harper, Tommy Wirkola
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare, Derek Mears, Thomas Mann
MPAA Rating: R (for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language)