Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters (2013)
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
The opening credits sequences of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is pretty cool. It’s done in a style reminiscent of early printing, sort of like wood block art and it depicts the titular siblings beating up witches as they grow up and their fame grows with them.
It lasts for ages though. After a minute we quickly get that these two are indeed bad ass witch killers. Yet the scene just keeps going and going. The first time I watched this film I wondered why it was in there. Having seen the finished movie though, I know exactly why. It’s because without that scene you might wonder if Hansel and Gretel have actually managed to kill any witches at all.
Seriously, they get their asses handed to them repeatedly. The film has about 4 major action sequences involving the siblings fighting witches and in all but the last one the witches smack them around like they’re kittens in a bag. Fortunately, for plot related reasons, the two are immune to magic which means the Witches can’t blast them with spells but you know what isn’t immune to magic? Tree branches. And you know what isn’t immune to tree branches? Skulls. If you ever wanted to see people magically smash Hawkeye and a bond girl in the face with floating wood then you will not be disappointed by Hansel and Gretel.
My favourite example of just how massively incompetent they are is that Hansel (aka Jeremy Renner aka Hawkeye and yet at no point does he fire a bow and arrow which is a huge waste of a gag movie!) not once, but twice employs a strategy of “grab onto broom stick and get dragged along by evil witch.” The first time he does this he gets dragged along the forest floor and his head smashed into a rock (which unaccountably does not kill him). The second time he does this he ends up falling off the broom from about, oooh 200 feet up, and landing in a tree. This also does not kill him. So presumably Hansel is also immune to gravity and rocks.
Anyway, incompetence aside, what is this movie about? Well the film starts with the story of Hansel and Gretel you know rendered fairly faithfully to the Grimm version, assuming their version was art directed by Tim Burton and included the word “bitch.”
Having roasted an old lady the two kids decide they have quite the taste for murder and grow up becoming famous Witch Hunters the world over.
Cut to a town whose name I don’t care about in Germa-hun-slo-po-rus-den. Children are being stolen and the people blame witches!
Fortunately they’ve found one!
Unfortunately she turns out not be a witch.
Fortunately Hansel and Gretel are here to catch the real one.
Unfortunately there is a blood moon coming and witches will be more powerful than ever at that time. And the head witch (Famke Janssen who imdb tells me played ‘Muriel’ which is not the most threatening of villain names) has found a potion that will remove a witch’s main weakness, fire.
Fortunately for our heroes the witches’ potion only works temporarily and requires Gretel’s heart to be made permanent.
Why does it require Gretel’s heart? Well it turns out she’s a white witch. As was Hansel and Gretel’s mother and that is why they’re immune to magic.
BTW movie, a witch tried to eat them once and they’re at this moment stealing and killing children. I think Hansel and Gretel have enough motivation to hate witches without needing to avenge their family.
Also turning out to be a white witch is the woman at the start of the film that Hansel rescued from the crowd. The woman he explicitly said was not a witch. Again, not the world’s best witch hunters here folks.
Oh and the other white witch is not immune to magic because…hey look a troll!
So that’s your movie folks. Muriel *snort* wants to kill Gretel and kidnaps her, Hansel and white witch lady rescue her, witches get slaughtered, the end! Oh plus a troll and a fanboy are somehow involved.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is of course dumb schlock, but it’s not terrible schlock. Lets’ get the obvious problems out of the way first. The plot is bobbins, there is no attempt at theme or saying anything, the editing is iffy and the acting ranges between scenery chewing and phoned in. Jeremy Renner’s costume is actually not far off his Hawkeye outfit and I’m sort of wondering if he shot all his scenes while they were setting up shots of Avengers. Also I’m 90% certain that Famke Janssen is only in this because they filmed it near where she lives and so she didn’t have to travel to do any work.
So yeah, its crap; but it does have a few things going for it. It looks pretty great actually. Considering the budget the effects are well done and the costumes and make-up are also pretty creative. Edward the Troll looks better than similar monsters in much higher budgeted films. The witches in particular are a delight. The movie posits that a witch’s appearance reflects their inner darkness and so these witches are all mutated in varied and interesting ways. One witch has a massive goitre, another has no legs, there is a pair of witches conjoined at the back who are awesome! We even have a black witch which makes this film more diverse than pretty much any film set in historical Europe, even if she is a baddie with no lines.
On a similar note is the gore. Now I’m not a gorehound by any stretch of the imagination but the gore in Hansel and Gretel is surprisingly effective. It doesn’t wallow on entrails like an old 70’s gorefest nor is it amazingly creative in the violence like many anime are. What it does is just follow the consequences of an action for about a second or two more than Hollywood conventionally does. So for example when Edward the Troll crushes a guy’s head, normally you’d get a cut and a sound effect but here, nope, we see head crushing. Like I say, not normally a gore guy but the film is cartoony enough that the gore sort of adds to the fun. Evil Dead is the closest comparison I can think of although that comparison gives this film far too much credit.
Where Hansel and Gretel has the most fun though is in the setting. The film is wildly anachronistic mixing up elements from as early as the 13th century to as late as the 19th and mixing styles and fashions from all over Europe. It sets its stall out early though with milk bottles that have got missing children posters strapped to them in string. Basically we’re doing, everyone and everything is completely modern but set is the past.
I kind of love that. It’s a big part of the appeal of the Discworld books for me and Hansel and Gretel has fun with it. I draw the line at the weapons though. I love steampunk, I love clockpunk and I’m an easy mark for mixing modern high tech weapons and fantasy weapons. I like Warhammer for god’s sake, a game that features Dwarves flying helicopters. Movie, I’m on your side with this. But Gretel has a crossbow that rotates to fire two bolts at 90 degrees to her.
No, no movie that is stupid. Not cool, not fun, just dumb. Really damn dumb.
My only real problem with the film is its gender politics, and not for the expected reason either. Witches are inextricably linked with the oppression of women historically and normally in cinema witch hunters are unequivocally the bad guys, persecuting innocent women for their own gain. I also grew up in the 90’s, the era of New Age and the birth of Wicca as a popular movement. That means I’m even more inclined to automatically view witches as at worst misunderstood good guys who worship flowers.
But in this film witches are basically just monsters, and I’m fine with that. Sometimes I like a vampire movie where the vampire is a tortured and conflicted romantic, other times I want a scary monster. Here they’re scary monsters.
No the gender problem is that Gretel gets horrendously mistreated by this film.
She starts out being all bad ass and competent, shooting witches in the face with crossbows and head butting sexists in the nose! She has personality, she argues but she also jokes and she is a pretty great lead. She certainly comes across as more interesting that Hansel, if only because Gemma Arterton is having the time of her life hamming it up whereas Jeremy Renner looks like he woke up from a hangover and doesn’t realise people are filming him.
Then in the second act she suffers from the fact that both she and Hansel are just, really, really bad at their job guys.
Finally in the third act this happens to her. She gets assaulted by the Sheriff’s men (yeah there is a Sheriff in this film, he is not important) who attempt to rape her. Then she gets captured by Muriel *snort* tied up in bondage and stands there chained to a wall during the climactic battle.
I mean, she does get freed and do some shooting in the final battle but she went from arse kicker in leather trousers to damsel in distress in less than an hour.
And there is no need for the attempted rape whatsoever. I know why it’s there. Its story function is to set up that Edward has to protect Gretel which is a clue that she’s secretly a witch. And it’s other function is that “we’re doing a revisionist take on fairy tales, yeah, with realism, yeah, and women got raped like all the time in the past so that’s realistic, yeah.”
But there are soooo many other ways you can set up the Edward thing and the attempted rape adds nothing. It’s sleazy, It’s gross, it’s exploitative and it makes the film much worse for being there.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t care either except Hansel and Gretel was doing really well beforehand. It handily passes the Bechdel test and up until the ruining of Gretel all of the female characters had personality, agency and motivations that didn’t revolve around men. That just makes it all the worse when it does the typical Hollywood bullshit at the end.
So that’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Should you watch it? Meh. It isn’t a bad film but I’d have a hard time recommending it to someone because there isn’t anything especially novel in it. Unless you like seeing Hawkeye brained with branches. If you want to see that then no other film ever made will satisfy you more.