Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

When Snow White and the Huntsman had a modicum of financial success, you knew it wouldn’t be the last time we’d see Hollywood dip their toes into the pages of children’s literature in search of another tale that could be spun into a commercially viable action narrative geared towards an adult audience; hence the production and theatrical release of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.  That the movie was released in January is a telling sign of how the execs at Paramount felt about the film, but it still managed to pull in a respectable $223M worldwide.  But does that mean Hansel & Gretel is actually a good movie?  Not necessarily.   

The movie kicks off by retelling the classic tale of Hansel and Gretel and using it as the origin story for the witch hunting adult version of the siblings (played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) we are introduced to onscreen.  The plot finds Hansel and Gretel hired by a village to stop a group of witches from kidnapping their children, but as the duo investigate the occurrences, Hansel and Gretel uncover a deeper more nefarious plot that may ultimately shed some light on their long lost family.

So it’s not the absolute worst premise, but what little hope there might be is critically damaged by some curious choices on the part of the creative team.  Unlike Snow White and the Huntsman, the tone of this film makes you feel like no one from top to bottom is taking this movie seriously.  There’s always a tongue-in-cheek/ wink wink vibe that gives the impression that the entire production is one inside joke, and Jeremy Renner’s natural inclination towards wry sarcastic delivery only fans these flames.  As a result, the movie feels off kilter, unbalanced, and makes it a difficult narrative to digest.  It’s like eating food during a blind taste test; you’re hesitant and distracted because you’re not really sure what they are feeding you.

Where this film truly falters though is in its failure to get you to invest in the characters.  Orphaned, traumatized, always venturing perilously close to death, and yet it is near impossible to care for the protagonists and their cohorts in the least.  The blame for this has to falls on the shoulders of director Tommy Wirkola and his inability to flesh out the characters and build tension and suspense into the plot.  Besides getting the film in the can on budget, ensuring those two elements were probably his primary points of emphasis, so it’s hard to view his work as anything but a failure.

Jeremy Renner does him absolutely no favors as Hansel.  Renner is very good in certain roles, but I don’t think he is the fountain of acting talent that many claim him to be.  He’s a one-gear actor limited range and this role resides far outside his wheelhouse.  His Hansel costume looked more suitable for a bad SNL and rendered him every bit the fish out of water that Mila Kunis seemed in Oz The Great and Powerful.  While he does provide the occasional entertaining moment, his work for the most part feels clunky and awkward.

If there is a redeeming quality for this movie it has to be Gemma Arterton as Gretel.  She may not be significantly more successful than Renner at disappearing into her character, but she does perform most of the heavy lifting in regards to advancing the plot and does so with an impressive screen presence.  I am guessing that Arterton could read the pages of the phone book and make it sound like a canonical piece of literature with her voice inflection and accent.  It’s a quality that is not lost on the viewer despite the morass of incidental nonsense taking place on the big screen.

As for the rest of the cast, Famke Janssen reprises the role of Jean Gray from X-Men: The Last Stand only this time she is supposed to supposed to be Muriel, a wicked witch.  Unfortunately, the performance is as weak this time out as it was six years ago in the Brett Ratner directed fiasco.  Peter Stormare as Sheriff Berringer also recycles the past as he delivers the exact same performance that he has put forth in last ten movies.  Sooner or later someone is going to figure out that they can just edit his past performances into each subsequent movie and save him the trouble of showing up to the set.

So what you have then in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a movie with a soft of premise, poor directing, uninspired acting, and moderately entertaining action scenes – all of which collectively induce apathy.  I don’t think the movie is a complete write-off as there is just enough to keep you occupied on an extremely slow night, but in order to appreciate this film, you will have to approach it with a tongue-in-cheek attitude and very low expectations. It’s not a purchase or a rental and maybe not even a pay cable channel movie.  My best suggestion is to forget about it until that one day you randomly happen upon it while flipping the channels.  Those conditions probably give you the best chance of enjoying this film.   Under any other circumstances, it is probably a “no.”

Standout Performance: Gemma Arterton.  She’s not the best actress of her generation and at times she may not even seem like a very good one, but she has an indefinable screen presence – something sorely lacking in today’s cinema.


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