The original story of Hansel and Gretel was written by the Brothers Grimm and was published in 1812. The story is typical of the Grimms and is brutal and dark. Two children, whose stepmother decides due to a famine, she and her husband can no longer feed the children; has the children taken out into the woods and abandoned. The first time she tries this, the children take white pebbles with them to lay a trail they can follow in the moonlight back to the house. The stepmother tries again, and the children use breadcrumbs, which birds eat, and so they become lost. They stumble across a cottage built of candy and gingerbread. The children are hungry, and start to eat the house. The house is owned by a witch, who catches the children and forces Gretel to clean, and Hansel to eat, in an attempt to fatten him up and eat him. She cannot see well, and Hansel keeps holding up a bone instead of his finger to make the witch think that he is not gaining weight. Eventually the witch plans to eat Gretel, she demonstrates how she wants Gretel to bend near the oven, and Gretel shoves the witch into the oven, slams and bolts the door, then listens to the witch screaming in pain until she dies. Gretel frees Hansel, they find precious gems in the house, get carried across an expanse of water by swans (what?), and end up back at home with their father – the stepmother has conveniently died. With the stolen gems, they live happily ever after.
Flash forward to 2013, and we are treated to the super-short and crazy entertaining Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. This movie is 88 minutes, and in a January filled with three hour depressing Oscar movies, it’s a huge relief. And – as I have stated before, I love movies that do not take themselves seriously and everyone in them is having a great time. Again, a great example of this is any movie on SyFy Saturday night; or, my favorite, Kull the Conqueror – delightfully terrible.
In Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola’s movie, Hansel and Gretel are now adults. Gone is the evil stepmother, replaced by two loving parents who took the children into the woods one day to protect them. Having defeated the candy house witch as children, they grow up and become famous witch bounty hunters/killers. They are hired by a town to come and rid them of their witch problem. The witches are stealing children from the town – looking to collect 6 boys and 6 girls, each born in one of the 12 months. Hansel and Gretel, now hardened witch-killers with their own custom weapons, take the case, and end up finding Muriel, the witch behind the plot. She’s looking to collect the children to perform a blood moon ritual with the heart of a white witch to protect her from fire, which, as you know, is a witch’s greatest enemy, just like the Martian Manhunter. Hansel and Gretel meet a young fan of theirs, a witch hunter in the making; tackle a bunch of witches with surprisingly fast brooms and even more surprisingly good hand to hand combat skills; interact with a troll named Edward; belittle the town’s sheriff; and hook up with a white witch named Mina (well, Hansel does). In the end (spoiler alert), they foil the witches plot, and ride off into the sunset with their new sidekicks to continue fighting witches.
In case you were confused about the type of movie this is, it's produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. Wirkola has stated that he’s a fan of Tarantino and Sam Raimi, and you can see some old school Raimi tributes here and there. He sets up the tone immediately by showing a farmer selling his milk in glass jars, with illustrations of missing children strapped to them. He does a great job directing the action, which is really all that is important in this movie. The dialogue scenes are fine, just not nearly as entertaining. Again, I love the length of this movie. At just under an hour and a half, it’s fast and fun. It does earn the R, with some f-bombs, and some blood and gore, all of which make for some really fun nonsense. Everyone in the movie is clearly enjoying themselves; no-one is taking anything too seriously.
The casting in this is pretty great:
· Jeremy Renner got this job before Mission Impossible, Avengers, and More Bourne. One of the reasons this was postponed from the March 2012 opening date was that there were two large Renner movies coming out that year. He’s great in this, lighthearted and fun; does most of his own stunts; and almost convincingly pulls off 1800s diabetes.
· Gemma Arterton plays Gretel and seems to really enjoy kicking witch ass. She handles the revelation of being a white witch (spoiler alert) pretty well, and gets to do a lot of cursing, which doesn’t really seem to fit, but what the heck, you have to earn that R. She does get some pretty great hand-to-hand combat sequences, taking on 5 of the sheriff’s men before Edward the troll shows up and literally stomps the hell out of them.
· Famke Janssen stated that she took this role to pay her mortgage, and complained about the three hours of makeup daily. However, I have to say, I don’t think I’ve seen her have more fun with a role in anything prior to this. She’s pure evil, and seems to relish it.
· Norwegian Actress Piha Viitala plays Mina, who the town was about to burn at the stake as a witch, but Hansel and Gretel save her, stating that she doesn’t have the witch-rot (you know, the witch-rot). I’ve never seen her in anything before, and her character’s plot twist (?) is predictable, but entertaining.
· Thomas Mann from the upcoming Beautiful Creatures (also a witch movie) plays the Hansel and Gretel superfan who becomes one of their new sidekicks. He does a good job of geeking out at them even when Hansel uses him as a shield to block an exploding dude filled with grubs – seriously - that happens.
· The hilariously crazy Peter Stomare plays the town Sheriff. He seems to be in this just to take abuse from Gretel, and provide some nonsensical comic relief. He’s better in this than he was in The Brothers Grimm (which was one of the worst movies I had ever seen), but worse than he was in Constantine (he was absolutely the best part of that nonsense).
I have read some other reviews which point out the unpretentiousness as a shortcoming, but in my opinion – it’s all positive. The opening credit sequence is beautifully done – all old-timey illustrations. Another reason I absolutely loved this was the shocking amount of practical effects. Wirkola has stated coming up making movies in Norway, he had no money to afford CGI. When he does use it, he likes it to just be used to polish up his practical effects. There are three witches that we follow through most of the movie, and each of their makeups is fantastic. At the end, during the blood moon ritual, there are dozens of witches, each of which has their own amazing practical crazy makeup. That scene could have been a SyFy Face Off challenge. Also – every time a witch flies off on her broom (which are really just sticks), it’s mostly all done with wire work. And, there are surprisingly well choreographed hand to hand combat sequences. Honestly, the witches are ninja-like and beat the hell out of Hansel and Gretel. The sets are beautiful; the costumes are great; the custom-made weapons that Hansel and Gretel carry around are big time fun. I haven’t even mentioned the fabulous troll – which is Derek Mears (my third favorite creature actor, behind Brian Steele and Doug Jones) in a fantastic troll suit/makeup.
I loved this – it’s easily the best thing I’ve seen all year so far (okay, that’s only three movies, but you know what I mean). It's silly, it's crazy, it's violent and bloody, it's terrible, and it's fun. As long as you don’t take it seriously, and you know what you’re getting into, you’ll have a good time.8 out of 10 – gained points for the witch makeups; lost points for the exploding grub-filled dude, ick; gained points for the candy house set – it looks good enough to eat; gained points for the fight scenes, awesome.
Bonus Video 1: Face Off on SyFy, again – if you’re not watching this, you should be.
Bonus Video 2: HellBoy 2 – Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors, and the HellBoy movies have amazing practical effects as well.
Bonus Video 3: Stomare playing the devil in Constantine.
Bonus Video 4: cast Interviews!