NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
I wasn’t as sold on Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola’s 2009 Nazi zombie comedy Dead Snow as many fans, but it was a morbidly lively, gruesome, well-made little genre picture. He has leapfrogged into the mainstream with this medium-big-budget German-American effects action-fantasy. It’s a showcase for a couple of not-quite-A-list stars who have managed to appear in other folks’ franchises without embarrassment and more than demonstrated their acting chops in serious films. So, no shame on Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton for taking rare top billing and a presumed payday … and if neither are on their best form here, that has more to do with the clunky English-language dialogue they are stuck with (Arterton has to a Yank accent to match Renner and it’s supposed to be funny when she swears) and a couple of script missteps that hamper H&G even on the level of a knockabout comedy-horror.
A few years ago,Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm seemed like his least-interesting film; its co-option of classic fairy tales into a Van Helsing-like universe of professional monster-fighters and crossover storybook characters felt frankly desperate. Somehow, it’s become very influential, with a whole run of TV shows and films trying for something very similar (cf: the two competing Snow White films last year and that werewolf version of Red Riding Hood) while there’s been a revival of the Angela Carter game of re-imagining fairy tales in print (put Maura McHugh and Sarah Pinborough on your Amazon wishlist). This gets its premise on screen in the title … a pre-credits sequence dramatises the familiar story, with the young siblings taken out into the woods and deliberately lost by their parents, for reasons which become guessable very soon. They encounter the witch of the edible house, resist attempts to fatten them up and turn the tables by shoving her into her oven with a quip (‘is that hot enough for you?’) The fairy tale is here a superhero origin story: with their natural immunity (!) to witches’ spells, Hansel (Renner) and Gretel (Arterton) grow up to be roving witch-hunters and a montage of woodcut headlines covers their hag-busting celebrity career. They get steampunky anachronistic weaponry (Hansel’s unfolding long-barreled gun is sillier than anything in that Paul W.S. Anderson Musketeers movie) and fetish leather gear (both leads seem to be wearing pairs of Kate Beckinsale’s cast-off uber-tight britches) and snarl with tons of’tude that makes them not exactly pleasant company. It’s a problem inherent in the material that the heroes are brother and sister so they have to work hard to avoid displaying sexual chemistry, while the token characters brought on to hint at love interest for the leads fail to register even as plot points.
To remind audiences that, on the whole, witch-hunting was historically a bad thing, we come to the mediaevalish town of Augsberg just as the nasty local sheriff (Peter Stormare) is about unjustly to burn white witch Mina (Pihla Viitala) to tackle a rash of child abductions. Hansel and Gretel save Mina from the stake, smash the sheriff’s nose and offer to take care of the problem. Hansel does cosy upto Mina and acts like a drunken lout, while Gretel is partnered by a) Hansel and Gretel fanboy Ben (Thomas Mann), who has collected all their posters, and b) troll Edward (voiced by Robin Atkin Downes), who switches sides on the grounds that ‘trolls obey witches’ (revealing the witchy heritage Gretel has from her mother). Muriel (Famke Janssen, channelling Anjelica Huston), the boss witch, was H&G’s mother’s enemy and tormentor and responsible for all the ills of the plot. While most witches appear as make-up effects freaks, Muriel has a few glamorous, seductive moments. Her big child-snatching scheme (one for every house of the zodiac) is a lead-up to a big sacrifice which is supposed to make all witches fireproof so they can rule the world. Cue: a climax where the witch-hunters and their allies use white magic and big weapons to intervene …
Even in children’s stories, witches can be scary – cf: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Wizard of Oz, TheWitches – but this makes its villains too pantomimish, probably to excuse the ultra-violence inflicted on them by the goodies, and thus fails to raise any goosebumps. Janssen, well-cast, is given only conventional evil woman stuff to deliver, and this isn’t the sort of movie to address any underlying misogyny or gerontophobia in the original story. The influence of Nightbreed is apparent in the crowd of freakish witches who show up for the climax (conjoined twins, etc), though Clive Barker’s message is ignored as this reverts to the ‘she’s hideous so burn her’ certainty of the old old stories. It’s an overly busy film, with a lot of weightless CGI action (yes, there are aerial broomstick chases), that vaguely lumpen cruel jollity which passes for black humour in German commercial cinema and sadly few moments of actual magic.