Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters begins with a silly premise. You’re probably already laughing based on the title. The film re-imagines the fairy tale characters as hunters of witches, going from town to town and cutting down all of the witches in their paths. After having escaped the witch from the fairy tale, they find out that they’re immune to witch magic, and decide to dedicate their lives to killing all witches, under the belief that they’re all evil and the world would be better off without them around.
Their quest eventually takes them to some random town where a bunch of children have gone missing. They’re hired by the town mayor to find out who is behind the kidnappings and to bring the children back alive, assuming they haven’t been killed, eaten, or otherwise removed from the planet. This winds up bringing about a fight between Hansel and Gretel and an evil coven of witches. Famke Janssen plays the evilest of the evil witches, while Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton play Hansel and Gretel respectively.
At this point you’re probably already laughing at both the premise and how simplistic the plot sounds. I’d try to use more flavorful words to spice up the plot, but that would be deceptive. It’s not at all original, and not at all engaging. You sit back and watch the action, some of it is inventive but most of it isn’t, and you keep waiting to see something worth watching for. You never get that. And the film is so serious that despite the laughable premise, you’re not going to be chuckling your way through the film.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a tiring movie. Not an exhausting one in the way that you’d hope, either. Some movies overwhelm your senses in such a way that you feel legitimately tired after it ends. Hansel & Gretel is one that results in you wanting to fall asleep. It’s so mundane, so seen-it-all-before, and it’s missing the hint of irony that would function as a spark to keep the film aloft. Instead, it just throws obligatory plot that it doesn’t even like and mostly dull action scenes at us in hopes we’ll eventually start liking it.
It’s weird that the film is this dull, too, because there are some good ideas at play. The film is set sometime in the past, but the characters talk like they live in the present day, the weapons are primarily stolen from a steampunk setting — Gretel’s most noteworthy weapon is an upgraded version of the crossbow used in Van Helsing (which has better action and humor than this), for example — and some more modern tropes are used well to contrast with the historic setting.
It’s also kind of interesting that Hansel is a diabetic, that both lead characters seem to be completely emotionally repressed, and that the whole production is gory and profane; it’s not a PG-13 affair. This all makes Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters seem more interesting than it winds up being. Most of these elements seem pointless. The film does nothing with the majority of them, and has no pretense of having a deeper meaning. These things simply are, and there’s no reason for them, and they don’t wind up being engaging.
To be fair, there are a few attempts at humor, but they fall flat. The film’s main joke is that Hansel and Gretel are now witch hunters, and we’re supposed to find that fascinating and funny. It’s not really either. Neither character really seems to have any reason to be based on the fairy tale version except that it gives us an easily identifiable back story — which the film shows us anyway — and gives us a singular joke. If you don’t laugh at the premise, or you start to but then it grows tiring, the film’s brief running time will feel too long.
I mean, isn’t this exactly the type of movie that deserves a bunch of strong one-liners? I think I counted one, and it comes in a mid-credits scene (which serves only as an epilogue). For the first 80 minutes or so, I laughed only a couple of times, and each time felt like a forced pity laugh. You know when something is so uninspired that you laugh because you feel like nobody else will and you feel bad for it? That’s the type of feeling I had during Hansel & Gretel.
The whole production begs this question, which is the only one I had for the film’s 90 minutes: Why would both Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton sign up for this? They can’t be hurting that bad for cash, I would hope. Neither is exactly an A-lister, but they’re both good actors who deserve much better material than this. One would have hoped Arterton would have got over this type of film with Prince of Persia (not as bad as this), while Renner now has Bourne for action (also not as bad as this). They should both fire their agent and reconsider the films they’re starring in.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has interesting ideas that go to waste, a central premise that exists as a joke, a tone that’s far too serious — even with all the over-the-top action going on around it — and an odd lack of jokes and irony that would have at least elevated it above “terrible.” Unless the idea of Hansel and Gretel becoming witch hunters is so funny that you’re literally rolling on the floor laughing at the thought of it, skip this movie.