Double, Double Toil and Rubble
By Michael S. Goldberger
Special to the Observer
Fuddy-duddies like me who see movies like “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” never cease to be amazed that there is actually a market for such claptrap. Featuring a lot of misplaced creativity, only a few good ideas and some effective but rather standard special effects, director Tommy Wirkola’s horrified fairy tale emits only a lackluster boo.
At the very least, it gives the critic a chance to show how fair he can be. I’m on the clock anyway. Maybe a mulling of this variation on the old folktale will spawn a thought or two about contemporary culture, or not. So come now to an unspecified forest at some random, fabled time. Bear in mind, though, this isn’t your Grandma’s “Hansel & Gretel.”
In the so called original version recorded for posterity by the Brothers Grimm, Fairy Tale Land isn’t immune from recession. Poor Pop the woodcutter, pressured by mean step mom, and not having the benefit of Newt Gingrich’s enlightening philosophy about the benefit of orphanages, abandons Hansel and Gretel to fend alone in the woods.
In this newest take, it’s not so much about the Benjamins as it is a concern for some convoluted, mystical curse concerning white witches and the siblings’ Mom that convinces Dad to chance repercussions from DYFS. But the kids do OK. After a harrying experience with an enslaving witch, they manage to burn her to death in her own stove.
But then they take it a step further. Doubtless influenced by an entrepreneurial spirit that accompanies the sounding of the death knell on feudalism, the now grownup duo figure they can make a pretty pfennig from their newfound talent. So they set up shop: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Newspaper articles regaling their exploits flash across the screen.
We catch up with them shortly after they land a big commission in Augsburg, Bavaria, apparently a haven for witches. But this is going to be a tough assignment for the brother-sister bounty hunters, not just because of the severity of the diabolical incursion that’s being blamed for seven children gone missing. Nope, just like on your job, it’s politics.
But unlike your boss, the power hungry sheriff (Peter Stormare) doesn’t want anyone else getting the credit for finding the waifs. Never mind that his minions are idiots. Good thing Mayor Engleman (Rainer Bock) still has some say. ‘Tis he who commissions the title characters, portrayed by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, respectively.
Arriving with a dramatic flourish in the opening scene, their first piece of business is in the town square when they rescue pretty red-haired Mina (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), accused of witchery, from a mob of burghers being incited by the Machiavellian cop. Suffice it to note, the thankful maiden is more than a bit smitten by the male half of her saviors.
Now, this is the point in the review where it’s perfectly OK to stop reading, even if you’re a really good friend of mine. I won’t be upset. Who could blame you? I feel silly enough writing it. But someone’s gotta do it. And, unfortunately, I drew the shortest straw down at the Film Critics’ Local #1085 Meeting Hall. Ah, I’ve reviewed worse.
Actually, if one subscribes to my big sister Ann’s mantra about making lemonade out of lemons, there is a bit of a lesson here beyond the obvious, “What Not to Do When Making a Movie.” Truth is, production standards are rather decent. Which only indicates that technological advances have facilitated a new blight on the cinema landscape.
You see, dear loyal reader who refused to abandon me in the reviewing wilds like Hansel and Gretel, when you make available these high tech methods to the increasing spate of film school grads, you increase the potential for commercial schlock. It used to be you had to evince at least some creative eccentricity to be the junk movie purveyor.
While director Wirkola, working from a script he penned with Dante Harper, gives us a slight hint of the satiric edge he is trying to walk, only the technical method and little of the artistic madness is exhibited. Hence, his picture lacks identity, failing to truly frighten us and rarely tickling the funny bone. Mostly, you don’t know what he’s trying to do.
Oh, I almost forgot: For folks willing to pay a few dollars extra to have things pop out at them, there is a 3-D version of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” The f/x are OK. But then that’s from someone who, as a kid, didn’t care for his Jack-in-the-box. That said, if you’re’ in the Cineplex trying to decide what to see, don’t follow those breadcrumbs.
“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” rated R, is a Paramount Pictures release directed by Tommy Wirkola and stars Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal. Running time: 88 minutes