Once upon a time, about eight centuries ago, when Little Red Riding Hood was being eaten by a wolf in granny glasses, there lived a pair of starving orphans named Hansel and Gretel who were lured into a house in the woods made entirely of candy and cookies by a grotesque old hag who intended to fatten them up and chow down. But the siblings outsmarted the old witch, popped her in the oven instead, and escaped, vowing never, as long they lived, to eat gingerbread again. This gruesome tale was translated by the Brothers Grimm in 1812 from a German fable that dates back to 1315. It’s been delighting children ever since, in numerous movies, cartoons and operas, and now finds its way back to the shopping mall cineplex in the hobbled IMAX splatterfest Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Times have changed. In an age of zombies, werewolves and oversexed vampires, teens won’t be shaking in their Uggs over ugly women with bad teeth flying around on brooms, and with its graphic depictions of tortures, mutilations, gang rapes and myriad examples of child abuse, it’s no longer a fairy tale suitable for children.
I’m not sure it’s much of a movie for anybody else, either. Hansel grew up to be Jeremy Renner, from The Hurt Locker. Gretel grew up to be Gemma Arterton, one of the dullest of all Bond girls in Quantum of Solace. Both of them are clearly slumming. Devoting their lives to saving other children from carnivorous witches, goblins and other pedophiles, they take on sheriffs, preachers, hysterical mobs and whole towns hell-bent on burning real witches, while saving innocent girls falsely accused of “consorting with the spawn of the devil.” They are bounty hunters called in by a terrified village where the children are disappearing. Killing witches keeps them in groceries. They get extra for trolls. But Hansel has a heart—as well as a raging Johnson that needs attention. After saving a pretty redhead from a bonfire with her name on it, the first thing he does is join her skinny-dipping. He takes to nudity fast, but don’t offer him a Baby Ruth. Suffering from candy poisoning contracted years ago when he was trying to eat his way out of that gingerbread house, he has to jam a primitive hypodermic needle of medieval insulin into his body every day to stay alive. Meanwhile, Gretel gets her kicks, too, as a scantily-clad medieval pepper pot with throbbing cleavage who attracts the fanatic attention of a friendly, humongous troll named Edward with a head the size of a Volks-
wagen. Then she is rescued, from one of her many attempted rapes at the hands of a gang of rival witch hunters who keep flesh-eating dogs, by a teenage groupie who hides her in his hut in the forest and tries awkwardly to be a host. (“I’m sorry, would you like some porridge?”) Yes, there are fans and autograph hunters in the 14th century, too. I figure one Hansel and Gretel is worth two Rapunzels.
Norwegian B-movie writer-director Tommy Wirkola makes his bid for Hollywood action glory with this R-rated hokum, providing plenty of regurgitated violence mixed with a few random licks of humor—a formula he examined more creatively in his gory but hair-raising 2009 horror picnic Dead Snow, about a present-day group of good-looking medical students on a skiing vacation who find themselves at the mercy of a battalion of frozen Nazi zombies on icy slopes in Bavaria. This time, the comedy is forced and corny. I had fun for a while watching the primitive spikes, guns, slings and other toys of mass destruction, and enjoyed Famke Janssen as a powerful witch named Muriel, flying across the moon on primitive pitchforks, searching for the heart of a good witch like Billie Burke and conjuring gross-out spells like “The Hunger for Crawling Things.” But I doubt that they had Strike Anywhere matches in the 14th century, and I’m pretty sure nobody said things like “Whatever happens, stay cool.”
Whatever happens, stay home.
HANSEL & GRETEL:
Running Time 88 minutes
Written by Tommy Wirkola and Dante Harper
Directed by Tommy Wirkola
Starring Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton and Peter Stormare