Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

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In a world of grave blockbusters, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is a bloody absurd ride. Its cheerful pastiche of special effects, gore, guts, and sexiness is a welcome change from the routine. Written and directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkola, this 2013 movie plays to its strengths and never takes itself too seriously.

This is Wirkola’s first English language film. He handles the elements well, bringing an unconventional awareness to the action. He is gleefully in love with the project and has no interest in collecting awards, clearly constraining to making the exact type of show he wanted to make. The good news is that the cast is of the same mind.

After an introduction that runs over the familiar fairy tale of the titular characters, we meet the grown-up Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton). After the horrific events of their childhood, they’ve dedicated their lives to hunting witches. The mayor (Rainer Bock) of Augsburg hires the duo to handle his town’s witch problem, much to the chagrin of the sheriff (Peter Stormare).

Several Augsburgian youngsters have been snatched, with the sinful Muriel (Famke Janssen) leading the charge. She and her broom-riding buddies are preparing for the Blood Moon ritual, which entails child sacrifice in order to help the necromancers avoid being executed by fire. Hansel and Gretel spring into action, but will they be able to stop the Blood Moon ritual from taking effect?

Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters features characters of far more depth and detail than one might imagine. Hansel is more fanatical than Gretel. He believes that the “only good witch is a dead witch” and struggles to appreciate that there may be “white witches” out there that are not his enemies. Hansel is also fighting an early form of diabetes after a witch force-fed him sugary treats.

Gretel, meanwhile, is somewhat more contemplative. Arterton’s character is a badass, but she gives more levity to certain characters. She is more inquisitive and less intolerant, presenting a fine contrast to Renner’s character. Her burgeoning bond with Edward the troll (Derek Mears) provides neat opportunities.

Wirkola makes no bones about offering an alternate universe. Some aspects of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters borrows from the steampunk tradition, from the attire of the heroes to their souped-up arsenal. Characters speak quickly and cleverly, avoiding the typical accoutrements of artificial and ostentatious accents.

The film’s unadorned commitment to the craft means that the musical score and the hip camerawork make their obligatory appearances, but Wirkola’s elation means that these fundamentals play their part for the greater good. His picture slinks the line to irony but never crosses it, leaving itself open as a guilty pleasure that doesn’t feel fraught with glinting self-awareness.

The trick to Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters lies in the director’s knowledge of just how far to push things. While some of the gorier and sexier elements could’ve been pressed further, his tone is about on target. A prod in one direction would’ve made it a spoof of itself, while a nudge in the other would’ve made it yet another narcissistic blockbuster. Either path would’ve been ruinous.

What we have instead, then, is a good “dumb movie.” It is just gory enough, just sexy enough, just entertaining enough to do the trick. It never suggests affectation, edging instead into unremorseful B-movie territory with enough severed limbs and blood-spattered façades to placate the whole family. And there’s apparently an “extreme version” set for the Blu-ray release. Count me in.

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