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HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS is a stumblebum exercise that explores many tones, skipping over the good as well as the bad, with an uneven script and curiously inert direction. This is a shame, because the irreverent re-telling of the Grimm’s fairy tale had so much potential, glimpses of which still peek through, much to the viewer’s chagrin.
The classic story is the starting point for the film, as the adventures of Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) continue after their abandonment in the forest by their parents, and their daring escape from the gingerbread cottage in which a wicked witch imprisoned them as a future menu item. They’ve made a name for themselves working out their childhood trauma by becoming witch-hunters, and ruthless ones at that. Bold, efficient, and laconic, they earn big money while keeping on the move and away from any emotional entanglements. Their latest assignment finds them in Augsberg, where children are going missing with alarming frequency, and the townsfolk are hysterical enough to want to burn a winsome woman because the sheriff doesn’t like her.
Enter Hansel and Gretel, who make friends and enemies in equal measure as they work out what’s behind the disappearances, each succumb to an eager fan, and take on a witch (Famke Janssen) who may just be the death of them.
There is no faulting the art direction here. The gingerbread cottage in the deep dark woods is both menacing and enticing. The leather-clad siblings are armed with a delightful array of rinky-tink gadgets that are boldly anachronistic and charmingly executed. Sure, this is centuries before either Gatling guns or tasers, but a great deal of effort has gone into making facsimiles that are startling to see, yet in construction acknowledge the vaguely Renaissance era in which they find themselves. Not so the dialogue, which, at its best, crackles with post-modern sensibilities and delivery. That best comes from Renner, who swaggers through the film with an ironic detachment and world-weary cynicism as Hansel surveys a world of dolts and witches with equal disdain and then moves along, dismissing the former and slaughtering the latter. Gretel is more socially adept, though unfettered by conventions that would frown on her wearing those tight leggings while dealing a vicious right hook to anyone who annoys her too much.
If only the film didn’t skip from psychodrama to farce to humorless action flick with such blithe insouciance and maddening randomness. One moment a sight gag worthy of Pixar shows up, another, an innocent couple are violently done away with by angry townsfolk. If the tone is uneven, so is the writing, with Renner’s dalliance (Pihla Viitala) going from slick repartee to the sort of stilted speechifying found in inferior flicks about medieval magicians and knights of the round table. There is more consistency with the teenager (Thomas Mann) crushing on Gretel and doing so with an irresistibly awkward, innocent kind of lust, and to Edward, the sad-eyed and massive troll with a complicated inner life.
Witches of many imaginative configurations fly, snarl, and chitter like excited guinea pigs as they wreak havoc. Yet the action sequences in which our heroes take them out in equally imaginative and gory ways shouldn’t be so lifeless even if many of the participants leave this plane of existence during them. HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS should have been more fun, or more scary, or more something, anything but what it is.