After lampooning Quentin Tarantino and resurrecting Nazi zombies, Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola finally gets to unveil his English language debut. True to form, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters proves to be a goofy, yet thoroughly entertaining romp that blends the Brothers Grimm with bloody violence to darkly comic effect.
We have long been fans of Wirkola's work here at ScreenAnarchy, who first caught our eye with his Kill Bill-inspired debut Kill Bujlo, before graduating to the international stage with Nazi zombie horror comedy, Dead Snow. Last year, he had a hand in writing the delightfully surreal television series Hellfjord, which screened in its entirety at Fantastic Fest to a rapturous reception, and now he has ascended to the big leagues, with the release of his Hollywood debut, shot in eye-gouging 3D.
Wirkola's first English language feature picks up the famous fairytale "many years" after the pivotal event in the Gingerbread House scarred impressionable young siblings, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton). They have now become professional witch hunters, roaming the countryside in search of evil crones, and dispensing with them - for a price - using an arsenal of shotguns, crossbows, grenades and garrottes.
Arriving in the German town of Augsburg in time to save the beautiful Mina (Pihla Viitala) from being wrongfully executed, the brother and sister team are recruited by the mayor to hunt down a vicious sorceress who has been snatching up the town's children. Ignoring threats from the duplicitous sheriff (Peter Stormare), Hansel and Gretel soon come face-to-face with Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), only to unearth a much larger plot that could grant immortality to all the witches in the land.
Originally scheduled for release back in March 2012, Paramount chose to hang on to Hansel & Gretel until star Jeremy Renner had become a bigger name. With The Avengers and The Bourne Legacy now under his belt, it is safe to assume Renner is a more familiar face to the average moviegoer than he was a year ago. Those concerned that the studio was looking to bury a film they considered a failure can rest easy, as Wirkola brings with him a vibrant visual style, gleefully black sense of humour and a surprisingly high quota of blood and splatter that make for a far more entertaining film than perhaps anyone had anticipated.
Recent years have seen numerous attempts to reinvigorate fairytales for an adult audience fall on their faces, with Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm and Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood both notable failures that will understandably make audiences wary of Hansel & Gretel. And while Renner's performance here is merely adequate - Arterton fares way better - the film's real strength is Wirkola and his commitment to embracing the period and fantasy setting, rather than smugly mocking it. After all, this is a story about witches, trolls, magic and houses made of candy, and yet somehow Wirkola interprets that as an R-rated splatter fest, packed full of exploding bodies, crushed skulls, decapitations and even nudity.
The script was allegedly co-written by Dante Harper, but Wirkola receives a sole "written and directed by" credit in the film's opening titles. While the writing is quick-witted and displays moments of invention, the plot, somewhat predictably, ultimately circles back to the legendary events in our heroes' formative past. For all its visual spectacle, there is no denying a shallowness to the whole affair coupled with a lack of real character development. As a result, much of the supporting cast must contend with being one-note caricatures rather than anything of gravitas or substance.
That said, Peter Stormare manages to instill a dash of "Witchfinder General" to his corrupt sheriff, while Famke Janssen's villainous grand witch retains a seductive and alluring quality despite only flashing the occasional glimpse of the actress' true visage. Elsewhere, Thomas Mann and Hellfjord's Pihla Viitala both manage to make a lasting impression in their small, yet pivotal roles.
For a film that, if we are honest, nobody was particularly excited for or had invested too much hope in - save perhaps producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay - Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters turns out to be a surprisingly entertaining slice of late night nonsense. Tommy Wirkola has succeeded in bringing broom-riding hags, anachronistic weaponry, dubious human-troll romances and plenty of squelchy body parts to what could have otherwise been just another ill-conceived star vehicle for its new leading man. The great irony of this whole exercise is that Renner emerges as the weakest - or at least most ill-fitting - element of the whole production. Wirkola, conversely, should see his stock soar on the back of this particular broomstick.
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