Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters‘ status as a film that time forgot is hard to argue against. Despite having several big names involved – Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, and Famke Janssen starring; Adam McKay and Will Ferrell producing – it’s not a film that lasted long in audiences’ collective memory. The reasons why, as always, are relatively complex, although on the surface, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t easy to forget.
Taken at face value, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a singularly odd film. An action horror set in an unspecified era of German history, it serves as a re-imagining of the fairy tale that sees the siblings take up a career of witch hunting after their childhood ordeal. From the premise alone, it’s memorable, but adding in a star like Renner (fresh off the back of The Avengers, no less), it’s hard to see how this one ever fell by the wayside.
Despite being generally panned by mainstream critics, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was a box office success, grossing over $200 million against its $50 million production. It was celebrated by some as one of 2013’s most underappreciated films, although its cult status seemed to fizzle remarkably quickly. Talks of a sequel sputtered and died, too – after a few years of rumors bouncing back and forth, director Tommy Wirkola announced he wasn’t interested in returning, prompting Jeremy Renner to follow suit, and the rumors died off.
Straight off the bat, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has a few major aspects in its favor. It’s utterly unique in premise and presentation, punting any idea of historical accuracy into the oven like a smouldering witch corpse, instead opting for a gently fantastical action-based horror flick. As if this wasn’t enough, it’s also liberally dosed with tongue-in-cheek comedy (as well as blood, gore, and and f-bombs) to make for a strange juxtaposition between its R-rated humor and fairy tale story.
The result is a little tonally dissonant, although despite a few blatant exposition dumps its narrative is sound. It’s not overly intelligent, but then again, the material doesn’t really call for it to be – it’s a light-hearted fantasy-action-horror movie, after all. Its story is genuinely fun, and somewhere between the moments of light comedy and excessive blood and gore, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters becomes a genuinely charming experience.
As well as an enjoyably shallow story, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters features some solid visuals. Its character and set design evokes the Grimms’ fairy tales, capturing the magical, gothic tone without pressing too hard. The design of the infamous gingerbread house is colorfully sickening, lending Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters an air of authenticity in its translation of the fairy tale. The (over)use of guns in the story is more than a little tiresome, but its carried off as a sort of meta humor that sees the two fairy tale characters becoming agents of death and destruction. Much like the rest of the film, it’s not intelligent, but it just sort of… works.
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is not a cinematic masterpiece. It’s not a faithful retelling of the fairy tale, nor is it a darkly thrilling action-horror, but it is entertaining. It’s utterly ridiculous, but it’s gently self-aware, which only adds to its inexplicable charm – and, with stars like Renner and Arterton leading the charge, it’s a far more enjoyable experience than it ought to be.
Why exactly Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has been all but forgotten is difficult to explain but relatively plain to see: quite simply, it’s unremarkable. However, it captures a sense of whimsical fun that is so often missing from the action-horror genre, which makes it far more memorable than it should have been. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters undoubtedly has an audience out there waiting patiently for the rumored sequel, but to the rest of the world, it’s a film that’s been discarded to the passage of time, and unjustly so.
Summary: The odd choice of combining whimsical fairy tale magic with blood, gore, and comedy was clearly off-putting to many, but Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a singular experience that will entertain and amuse.
Highlights: Any one of the numerous times Renner attempted to act as an action hero only to become the butt of his own joke highlights his comic potential and elevates the film beyond its fairy tale nonsense and liberal gore.