Monday, February 4, 2013

Every Witch Way But Loose: HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS Review

When the logo for Will Ferrell and Adam MacKay’s Gary Sanchez Productions comes up before the opening sequence of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, it’s easy to believe you’re about to see a new high-concept comedy. After all, why would the creators of Anchorman and Talladega Nights be dipping their toes into the current fairy-tale craze, if not to spoof it? The elements of humour that do creep into the next ninety or so minutes are the most successful, as it turns out. But when this horror/steampunk/action mashup slides into familiar summer blockbuster territory, the going gets tedious and you start wishing that more of the movie was played for laughs.
In a prologue, we are shown the familiar origin of fairytale foundlings Hansel and Gretel. At the urging of their mother, the two tykes are led into the deep, dark forest and abandoned by their dad. Wandering through the woods, the kids soon find a house made out of candy, and are abducted by the carnivorous witch within. A daring, nick-of-time breakout ensues, in which we learn that Gretel is mysteriously immune to the witch’s dark magic, and the children free themselves by stuffing their captor inside her own stove and burning her alive. Having developed a taste for witch-snuffing, the two grow up to become bounty hunters played by Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, The Bourne Legacy) and Gemma Arterton (Quantum Of Solace, Clash Of The Titans) with a massive arsenal and a specialty in dispatching spell-casting, broom-riding uglies (the opening credits montage shows their development in the form of woodcut-newspaper headlines, the first of many anachronistic touches). Asked to help find the witches responsible for a rash of child abductions—represented by woodcut illustrations attached to the sides of milk bottles!—the siblings run afoul of a slinky sorceress (Famke Janssen) with a plan to make her kind indestructible by sacrificing a dozen kids and ushering in a new age of darkness. Along the way, H and G make friends with a nice witch (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), make enemies with a local sheriff (Fargo’s Peter Stormare), and make use of crossbows, a gatling gun, and a couple of new allies, in the form of a medieval fanboy (Thomas Mann) and a hulking troll named Edward.
Dead Snow director Tommy Wirkola, who also wrote the script, doesn’t skimp on the gore or the profanity here, but his action scenes are an impossible-to-follow barrage of quick cuts and CGI effects. The tone is all over the place, bouncing from a welcome comedic feel to straight-faced badassery without skipping a beat. The recent obsession with fairy tale-themed stories—no doubt due to their household-name familiarity and their public-domain status—is well overdue for a tweaking, but Wirkola never fully commits to it. Hansel & Gretel’s release was delayed for several months, possibly as a result of frantic re-editing to find a proper tone, and the final result is, perhaps inevitably, schizophrenic. Renner and Arterton are adequate, but neither of them brings anything particularly memorable to the movie, and why would they? Despite a yearning for their true origins, and a pointless subplot about Renner’s proto-Diabetes (caused by his witchy abductor making him eat too much candy—seriously!), their characters are barely sketched in. The movie earns points for its refreshing violence and profanity, and the sheer craziness of its finale, which reenacts the closing gatling-gun massacre of The Wild Bunch (only with a bunch of stuntwomen in monster makeup instead of Mexicans), but it’s not enough. The movie contains one startlingly cool special effect in the form of the troll Edward—portrayed by Derek Mears (Jason Voorhees in Freddy Vs. Jason), the lumbering behemoth is achieved through a combination of an oversized prosthetic costume and an animatronic face that conveys a lot more emotion than you’d expect. It’s the kind of old-fashioned practical effect that movies like Hansel & Gretel could use more of. Sadly, though, most of the movies skews towards generic CGI and even more generic action, which leaves the film’s end-credits promise of a continuing franchise about as appealing a proposition as a mouldering, rancid gingerbread house.