I'm not exactly sure who decided that action, horror, fantasy, and light comedy were a good mixture for box office success, but it seems like Tim Burton's 1999 rendition of Sleepy Hollow was just a bit more influential than one might think. Last year's movie version of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter didn't exactly blow the roof of the multiplex, nobody really remembers The Brothers Grimm, and the less that's said about Stephen Sommers' insufferable Van Helsing experiment, the better. So the question is this: who thought that an action version of the old Hansel & Gretel fable called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters would turn into a big, fat payday at the box office? Who is the intended audience for an R-rated but generally affable piece of tongue-in-cheek action splatter? Who thought this was a good idea?
I have no idea. I just know that, aside from some very clunky editorial missteps in the film's second half, there's a good deal of wit, enthusiasm, energy, and amusing attitude to be found in the dumb-yet-self-aware Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. I'm not the type to act snobbish around a ridiculous film that obviously knows it's ridiculous. In other words, putting aside those editing blunders that absolutely scream of deleted subplots, it seems clear that Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is precisely the film it wants to be: snarky, fast-paced, ridiculous, and odd.
The flick opens with a rather impressive rendition of the famous fable: a young boy and girl are abandoned in the forest, only to come across a house made of candy, but inside the house is a witch who wants to eat the kids, so they promptly jam the witch into the oven instead. Writer/director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) extends the tale to an illogical but amusing conclusion: the kids grow up to be famous witch killers! So clearly we're dealing with a premise, a presentation, and indeed an entire film that's not meant to be taken all that seriously -- which is not to say that a willfully goofy film is beyond criticism, but Wirkola does a workmanlike job of getting the actors and the audience in on the same joke.
Better yet, the film has legitimate assets that even the snarkiest film critic could agree with. The score, for example, is jaunty and energetic from the second the prologue begins, and it works as a playful companion through the film's best (and worst) moments. And while the leads (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) will probably never consider Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters among their most impressive work, they both bring a pulpy swagger that helps to nail the film's tone down. And that tone is this: wise-ass!
Yes, the movie has lots of wacky "modern" weaponry that has no place in a fantasy film setting, and sure, the actors drop the F-bomb more than you'd normally hear in a film in which witches and trolls eat children, but that's just part of the off-kilter charm that probably brought Mr. Wirkola to the project in the first place. The numerous action scenes are admirably kinetic, if perhaps in need of a few establishing shots amidst all the close-up and hyper-cut mayhem; the special effects are mostly quite good, particularly where a strange troll called "Edward" is concerned; the score, again, is pretty damn rousing; and the overall look of the film is actually pretty nifty.
By the time the flick wraps up (after about 90 minutes) with the lovely Famke Janssen commanding an army of wildly disparate witches to kill the heroes and devour some little kids, you'll have given in to the film's candy-coated charms -- or you'll have long since walked out by that point. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is the very definition of empty-calorie, matinee-style, "why am I watching this movie?" movies, but for those who care to look past the obvious silliness of the whole affair, there's actually some weird but quality craftsmanship at work.