The other day I received an email from a reader who is quite familiar with Tommy Wirkola’s background. He tells me that, while at film school, the director pitched something with the title “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” and received the following response from a professor: “never mention it again before you’re standing in front of Hollywood executives.” Even if the story is embellished at all (our reader says it was in the Norwegian press), it’s a perfect prologue for the fairy tale-like fantasy of the film industry and a harsh set up for the sad truth about million-dollar ideas.
Wirkola did wind up in Hollywood and has made a feature called Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Of course he did, because it’s the sort of title that goes a long way in the business. The only pitch necessary is in those four words — we have well-known characters and a simple premise all spelled out right there. But just because it’s a genuinely clever concept and, more importantly, an easily sellable product, that doesn’t make it a movie worth seeing. Wirkola never gives us anything more creative than those four words, unfortunately, and even worse, he directs his unimaginative script with so little care and spirit that you’d think he hadn’t been sitting on this project for so many years.
There’s not much plot to speak of beyond the obvious. Hansel and Gretel (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) grow up to become famed witch-hunting mercenaries following the familiar events of the Brothers Grimm tale, which is depicted in a pre-credits sequence. They’re hired by the mayor of a town where children are being kidnapped by a grand witch (Famke Janssen), and the rest is just blurry fights in dark forests and a surprising amount of heads being splattered and squashed and blown to bits by shotgun. Also, potentially to the delight of anyone who enjoyed The Last Stand, this is the second film of the month to offer both Peter Stormare (this time he’s the sheriff) and a Gatling gun.
What makes Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters especially disappointing is that it had the potential to surprise us, to be a part of the defense that original and creative works can in fact come out of well-worn and easily mined source material. Last year, Hollywood released two movies based on the Grimms’ Snow White fairy tale, and while neither Mirror Mirror nor Snow White and the Huntsman are exceptional films they each display the work of visionary directors, costume designers and other artists and thereby provide the viewer with, at the very least, something interesting to look at. As for Hansel and Gretel, even the candy house is so drab that it’s hard to believe it ever lured children to their doom.
The movie seems reliant on R-rated spectacle, like the nude body of Pihla Viitala and the blood and gore, much of which is rather tame and awfully computer-generated considering the MPAA classification. And also the constant profanity, which is completely unnecessary and ill-fitting and seemingly employed just to have one-liners as stale as the very gingerbread architecture that inspires our heroes to shout, “You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me” when they happen upon the candy house as grown-ups. If you’re going to make an edgy, violent, twisted and categorically adult version of Hansel and Gretel, you should go all the way — well, maybe not as exploitative as the fairy tale-inspired Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby, but something with balls.
On the other hand, if you want random cornball lines about porridge that’s “not too hot and not too cold, but just right” — more appropriate for a direct-to-video Shrek sequel — and a CGI troll who comes off as the love child of Fezzik from The Princess Bride and the Rockbiter from The Neverending Story, then there are ways to make an entertaining yet still darkly toned fantasy film for all ages (and for the ages). The thing is, a title like “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” is a lot more appealing to kids than adults anyway, so the movie itself is like the candy house that attracts youths and then punishes them with either death or — in older Hansel’s case — diabetes (a slightly ingenious gag in an otherwise barren script). However, even the most immature of viewers will find this to be dumb, messy, empty and an even bigger waste of Renner’s talent than The Avengers.
People often complain that there aren’t enough original ideas in Hollywood these days, but that’s not true at all. In spite of it being inspired by a 200-year-old story, and if we can ignore the current trend of edgy fairy tales and monster-fighting historical figures as well as the fact that there are four other Hansel and Gretel movies out this year (some that probably caught up to this one when its release was held back), the basic conceit of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a fairly fresh one, and probably was even more so when Wirkola came up with it. Yet fresh ideas are nothing without quality content to back them up, and we see this on a regular basis with programming on SyFy (which aired its own Witchslayer Gretl a year ago) and any Adam Sandler vehicle (call them bad, but a lot of them are very original ideas).
It’s just a shame that Wirkola trusted that professor and saved his Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters idea for Hollywood, where neither a rewrite from D.W. Harper nor computer effects appear to have done the project any good. Perhaps he got paid more than if he’d made it independently, but after Dead Snow, his previous movie that also had more of a clever premise (zombie Nazis) than full-fledged ideas, this should have been bloodier, scarier, had more integrity for the horror crowd and likewise been a modest cult hit. Instead, it’s a sloppy yet over-produced piece of junk that unnecessarily confirms the fact that pitches aren’t everything.
The Upside: It makes Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm look good, I guess.
The Downside: It’s the sort of movie where you’d rather look down at the shadowed floor in front of your seat because at least you know what you’re looking at there, and it’s a lot more visually stimulating, too.
On the Side: Wirkola seems, based on some mentions on the website of his alma mater and a former collaborator’s CV, to have previously made a short version of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters while a film student. But it’s not certain nor is there visual evidence to be found online that such a project was ever actually made.