In theory, Netflix is amazing: any movie you could ever want to watch, just a click and a modest subscription fee away. In fact, what you get are a couple movies you really want to watch and then a whole bunch that you’ve never heard of, look terrible, and finally answer the question, “Oh, that’s where Josh Hartnett has been hiding.” For TV shows, it’s pretty awesome, even if they refuse to put The Shield on there. Anyway, one evening Mrs. Supermarket and I were looking for something to watch, and one of those terrible-looking films popped up on the menu (selected by Netflix’s fevered criteria; “because you watched Flight, you’ll like movies that give you the experience of cocaine”), and we looked at each other and went, “You know what? What the hell.” That movie was Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Right away, we knew this wasn’t quite what we signed up for. We expected the usual long list of hired guns for the writer credit, and someone like McG or Brett Ratner slumming it for the director. Nope, the writer and director are the same guy: Tommy Wirkola, best known for the cult Nazi/zombie flick Dead Snow. If that weren’t enough, the producers are Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, a.k.a. the guys who made the two best comedies of the last ten years. This is all over a kinetic credit sequence of olde-timey newspaper headlines and simulated collage animation telling the story of the two most famous witch hunters in the world: the former victims Hansel and Gretel now all grown up and badass. This promises us the dumb fun of the poster, but hints that there might be a little more going on underneath the glitz.
And boy is there. The film places its tongue rather firmly in cheek with the opening narration, delivered by Jeremy Renner’s Hansel. For one thing, Renner doesn’t even attempt an accent; he keeps the San Joaquin drawl that’s served him well on his journey toward well-deserved stardom. As his sister, Gemma Arterton even attempts one of those “American” accents the Brits must teach their first year of acting school. The narration, subsequent dialogue, and line readings establish Hansel and Gretel as anachronistic American cowboys, witch hunters from a good old U.S. of A that might not even exist yet. The level of technology supports this: Hansel uses a retro-future pump action shotgun, while Gretel favors a crossbow with the rate of fire of an assault rifle. Miniguns and syringes (the latter treating one of the film’s cleverer flourishes: Hansel’s super-diabetes contracted after mainlining candy in the original myth) also make appearances, as does a gag based around putting a missing kid’s picture on a milk carton. The message is simple: don’t worry what time it is. Just watch this cool shit we’re about to do.
Hansel and Gretel are the western ideal of wandering badasses for hire, and they’ve been contracted by a small German hamlet to deal with the rash of witch activity and child abductions. The characters are reintroduced (the cold open of the film is a retelling of the famous bedtime story) rescuing a young woman accused of witchcraft. This woman, Mina, becomes Hansel’s love interest in the story. She’s also a redhead, and loyal readers will remember exactly what that means. (Also, yes, there is a significant redhead named Mina — total coincidence, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like that.) Yes, Mina’s a witch, but she’s a good witch, which is something that our titular heroes didn’t even know existed.
The cause of all the problems are a coven of three witches — there are always three — led by grand witch Muriel (the eternally young Famke Janssen) who are in the midst of a doomsday plot. See, there’s one thing that reliably kills witches, and it’s the one thing Hansel and Gretel found out when they decided to go all Aesop Unchained on their tormentor: fire. Muriel’s big plan is to grant witches immunity, and so they’ll be free to steal kids wherever they go. Well, not free, since this won’t protect them against Hansel and Gretel’s arsenal of anachronistic death, but it’s the next best thing.
The film might have been as bad as it looked, as disposable and instantly forgettable as its poster implied, but for one simple fact: it’s rated R. I wanted to sing and dance during the first explosion of gore. I wanted to shake Wirkola’s hand at the gratuitous-yet-tasteful nudity. I wanted to fire my gun up in the air every time Hansel or Gretel said “fuck.” While it would be easy to dismiss the movie as wallowing in the baser aspects of our nature, in fact it’s the opposite. The hypocrisy of the MPAA is well-documented elsewhere, but suffice it to say, I infinitely would prefer that children see the consequences of violence (in the form of blood and injury), than to think that it’s good clean fun. Also, boobs never hurt anyone. As for cursing, I’m sorry: I don’t believe in magic words. The movie’s rating frees Hansel & Gretel to create the kind of delirious action romp that feels like the Shaw Brothers by way of John Carpenter.
The creature design reinforces the retro aesthetic. The grand finale features witches from all over the globe, and many of the performers appear to be recruited directly from the circus. When you have excellent makeup supported by a performance with the interesting physicality of a human prodigy, you turn a forgettable face in the crowd into a visually fascinating character. The FX team went all out in their character design, even for individuals who exist only to be blown away in a hail of magical gunfire. Edward the troll, a reluctant servant of Muriel’s, is similarly well-designed. Wirkola wisely switches the trick when filming him, alternating between a man in a suit, a puppet, and (for a few brief shots) a CG creature. Edward could probably have been done by digitally enlarging a human performer, but the old school creature creation gives him both weight and a pleasantly inhuman mien. It’s a case of a filmmaker going the extra mile when he didn’t have to, and it pays dividends.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters wasn’t going to win any Oscars, but then, it never wanted to. It merely wants to entertain, by any means at its disposal, and it does just that. In an age of bloated, bloodless blockbusters, sometimes all you need is something lean and mean with a little red on the bone.