Thursday, January 31, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters / ** (R)

Hansel: Jeremy Renner
Gretel: Gemma Arterton
Muriel: Famke Janssen
Mina: Pihla Viitala
Ben: Thomas Mann
Horned witch: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal
Edward: Derek Mears
Red-haired witch: Joanna Kulig
Sheriff Berringer: Peter Stromare

Paramount Pictures and Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Pictures present a film written and directed by Tommy Wirkola. Running time: 88 min. Rated R (for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language).

Ever since I first saw “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” advertised, I haven’t been able get that Bugs Bunny short out of my head; the one where he tells the prince that he’s reading the story of “Hansel and Gretel”, and the prince walks away asking, “Hansel? Hansel?” flabbergasted by the pronunciation of the name as “Hahnsel.” It seemed to me that was going to be a more worthwhile memory than this movie. It is, but the movie wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Unfortunately, it also isn’t as good as it could’ve been.

When you see as many movies as I do, you begin to notice things that might slip by the casual viewer. Two of the names in the film’s opening credits struck me as interesting. Will Ferrell and Adam McKay are listed as executive producers. Most people know who Ferrell is. Adam McKay is his long time creative partner. The two created the website Funny or They’re the creators behind such comedy hits as “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby”, and “Step Brothers.” Ferrell stars in them and McKay directs them. A costumed update of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tales with action and special effects all in 3D might not seem like something that would be up their ally. So after seeing their names I thought, this might be a funnier take than I had realized.

The premise looked pretty ridiculous in the trailers. After surviving their ordeal in the woods with the witch who tried to cook them, Hansel and Gretel grow up to become badass witch hunters. Sporting crossbows and shotguns and smokin’ hot leather outfits, the two hire out their services to towns in need of burning some witches. There’s a lot of “ooos” and “ahs”, and things blow up real good, and people say things like, “Whoa. I didn’t see that coming,” and “You’ve got to be kidding me,” as some computer generated effect rises up in front of them. But perhaps Ferrell and McKay recognized a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the script that attracted them to it.

Then I realized that writer/director Tommy Wirkola was the man responsible for the clever tongue-in-check horror flick “Dead Snow” in which a group of vacationing med students find themselves trapped in a cabin in the woods surrounded by Nazi soldier zombies from World War II. Along with being a fairly good zombie flick, the movie was well aware of its preposterous premise and had a good deal of fun playing with the genre’s clichés. Would that be the case with “Hansel & Gretel” as well?

The truth is there is a degree of comedy present in the delivery of this silly tale. There just isn’t enough. The introductory passages have a more snarky attitude to them than the rest of the picture. Once everything has been established, the movie falls into a pretty predictable pattern of violence, action, gore, gore, big special effect, gore, snarky quip. Wirkola’s screenplay uses modern explicit expressions to contrast with the period costume setting to cull much of the comedy from the preposterous plot. While this works fairly well at first, by the end of the film he’s pretty much played out his use of the “F” word.

The whole script could’ve benefitted from a more clever use of language. Consider the opening sequence, which recounts the original fairy tale. The entire sequence is done with minimal dialogue. It sets up all the parts you know about the tale. The kids are out in the woods alone. They come across a candy house. They eat some candy. There’s a witch inside. She captures them. They fight back and throw her in the stove to burn. This sums up the approach on the whole film. They show you the situation. Hansel and Gretel react. There’s no style or panache to the screenplay. The entire sequence is designed to highlight the great production design, when it could’ve established a repartee for the heroes and an irreverent approach toward the witchcraft.

The production design and special effects are the most impressive part of the franchise. Combined with well-produced action sequences, these elements save the movie from descending into pure drivel. The witches’ lairs are artfully creepy. The troll, Edward, is an interesting creature creation. His appearance is somewhere in between the classic creature effects produced by Jim Henson’s creature shop for 80s fantasy films and the creative CGI creations of today’s best fantasy films. I liked that the witches’ brooms were really just craggy forest branches. The design team had a good deal of fun coming up with various witch designs as well.

While the film may be entertaining enough for some fantasy enthusiasts, it just isn’t good enough to recommend on a general level. There are too many missed opportunities to poke fun at itself. While Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton look great in their leather costumes and are believable action heroes, they don’t have enough fun with the material. The movie looks good, but that’s about it. It doesn’t live up to the comedic promises of the parts that make it up. “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is too serious a treatment of its preposterous premise. 

No comments: