‘Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’: A Fairly Grim Tale That Should Have Been Funnier
This undated publicity image released by Universal Pictures shows Jason Bateman, left, and Melissa McCarthy in a scene from, "Identity Thief." (AP Photo/Universal Pictures)
If Abraham Lincoln can be a vampire hunter, then of course Hansel and Gretel would spend their lives tracking and killing witches. Watching Grimm fairy-tale siblings, who barely escaped a sugar-toting villain with a taste for child flesh, makes more sense than seeing the 16th president chase bloodsuckers with an ax. The pair’s vocation may be the only logical part of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, a rarely funny spoof that’s heavy on bone-crushing and blood-gushing.
The early scenes break down the familiar back story: A brother and sister stumble upon a candy-coated cottage in the woods that’s home to a witch, who might be Freddy Krueger’s great aunt. She tries to eat them, but they kill her instead. And before you know it, they’re all grown up (played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) and bounty hunters.
Brother and sister are hired by the mayor of a village with a problem. Children are disappearing at an alarming rate. Hansel and Gretel arrive as if two characters from The Matrix were dropped into 17th-century Heidelberg; they are leather-clad and carry massive guns and sassy attitudes that don’t win them points with the wicked sheriff (Peter Stormare, who’s off to a bad start in 2013, also starring in the abominable The Last Stand ).
The child-thieving culprits turn out to be a particularly formidable witch (Famke Janssen) and her two cronies, including one who takes hair tips from Hellraiser. There’s an explanation for all this — something about a blood moon and a big sabbath feast, featuring sacrifices and the hearts of white witches, but does it really matter? Nearly all of the 80-some minutes focuses on fights or chases that culminate in some novel form of execution.
Who knew there were so many ways to meet a violent end? Characters are eviscerated by wires or instantaneously dismembered with magic; a troll squashes a human head like a grape and a witch explodes a man using maggots. After a while it’s easy to become numb to the repulsive sights and bored by action that once seemed intense and exciting.
For something presented as tongue in cheek, Hansel & Gretel isn’t nearly as funny as it should be. The humor comes across as less clever than writer-director Tommy Wirkola likely had in mind. In one scene, Hansel injects himself in the leg with a syringe, because all that candy as a child led to diabetes. It’s mildly amusing, but it also should have been a big red flag. Too much of anything, whether it’s blood, action or candy, is never good.
“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’ (88 minutes) is rated R for excessively bloody violence, nudity and crude language.