Steampunk meets Jim Henson’s creature shop in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a one-note premise that’s a lot better than it sounds. Under the imaginative watch of Norwegian writer/director Tommy Wirkola, the story of the eponymous Grimm children as grown bounty collectors achieves a fairly good balance of camp and sincerity that blends well with its wealth of action scenes. While the proceedings aren’t always stellar, there’s enough originality and self-aware commitment to the material to keep audiences captive for an hour and a half. Considering its competition over the weekend, that’s more than sufficient.
Ridiculous title in hand, the film knows its limits and wisely chooses to revel in the possibilities within. Clad in leather outfits and brandishing era-inappropriate weaponry, adult Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) kick ass in style, though not without some missteps. Far from flawless, the siblings’ respective aims miss more often than they connect. Tracking witches through dense forests, the two often lose their targets or get knocked down, only to get up and spin some ingenuity to take them down, little of which is smooth. Displaying something between skill and clumsiness, the duo’s limitations are refreshing and help cast them as relatable folk heroes despite their supernatural predicament.
Pitted against the evil witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) and her minions, the pair encounter regular opportunities to battle. Wirkola directs these face-offs with a commendable pulse, and though many of his combat sequences teeter on incoherence, they nonetheless capitalize on the lack of restraint its R rating affords. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t afraid to get bloody, throw around mature language, or show a little skin, assets that allow the images to achieve an appealing freedom in their uninhibited grisliness. Though the action sequences aren’t anything new, they hold occasional surprises, most notably when doled out by Edward the troll. A marvelous puppetry/FX hybrid and a standout effect amidst fairly standard computerized work, the giant’s head-smashing takedown of perps abusing Gretel shows that the film is ready to party like an adult and his ongoing presence gives the film an appealing new degree of creativity.
Still, the film has its share of lazy moments. Wirkola’s frequently tired dialogue yields clunky exposition from Janssen and even more so from Renner’s cringeworthy bookend narration. Easily the main attraction, the two-time Oscar nominee is surprisingly wooden and further hamstrung by ho-hum character traits, namely Hansel’s magical diabetes from eating too much candy at the source-material witch’s house that inspired their career move. Yet despite a rushed third act that not even charming Edward can fully rescue, Wirkola’s European slant infuses the story’s nimble pace with enough eyebrow-raising moments to keep the work interesting. For such an absurd concept, that many plusses equates a victory, though not one that warrants too much fanfare.
Rated R for strong fantasy horror violence and gore, brief sexuality/nudity and language.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.