Tuesday, February 5, 2013
HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS Is A Bad Brew
HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS Review:
- I'm all for a great B-movie. But what I don't like is a bad movie trying to salvage itself by throwing in random edginess, by turning the tables and trying to make the audience think it's in on the joke - when that likely wasn't even the original intention. It can be a fine line. This past summer, for example, a lot of people dismissed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, thinking that its over-the-top title and genre mash-up stylings automatically meant it was a bad movie. And yet, I found it to be a lot of fun - a movie that knew exactly what it was doing, and skillfully walked the line between legitimate action/horror film and self-aware pulp fiction. However, Hansel and Gretel has little of that same finesse. It's violent and gory for the sake of being violent and gory, and its main running gag is to have fairy tale characters drop f-bombs like they're in a Tarantino flick. Furthermore, it all seems fairly tacked-on ... not integral to the plot, and not consistent with the overall tone of the film - which more often than not, is whimsical and cutesy. This makes HANSEL & GRETEL feel like a bit of a mess, unsure if it wants to imitate the Disney-with-a-twist modern fairy tale feel of Once Upon a Time, or to be a B-movie grindhouse flick catering to the midnight movie crowd.
The premise of the film is at once bare-bones and yet overly convoluted. Basically, the Hansel and Gretel of fairy tale fame, following their initial encounter with and disposal of the famous witch who lived in the house-made-of-candy, grow up to become badass, leather-clad witch-hunters in a world that is apparently overrun with witches. That's the simple part. But the movie takes some kind of sadistic pleasure in casually tossing out bits of mythology that we're led to believe are big and important, but that ultimately add up to, well, not much. There's something about Hansel having candy-poisoning, and needing to take a regular injection to keep him healthy and alive (yep, seriously). There's something else about Gretel herself being a witch (because her mother was one?), and therefore being some sort of chosen one - a good witch whose blood contains magical properties. There's a Big Bad - a particularly nasty witch played by Famke Janssen, who has some sort of uber-scheme involving the aforementioned magical witch blood. There's a troll, who is the standard-issue monster-with-a-heart-of-gold. And there's a sort of stock nerdy/fanboy-type character who worships Hansel and Gretel and who joins up with them on their adventures. All of this leads to total brain shut-off about half way through the movie. I wasn't sure what the characters were doing, or why. I pretty much got to the point where I was just in it to see some decent pyrotechnics.
And there are some pretty decent pyrotechnics in the film. The movie doesn't skimp on over-the-top violence, and so there's a lot of dumb-but-fun action that keeps things moving at a decent clip. The film does this whole steampunk thing where the characters all have anachronistic fantasy weapons that are the medieval equivalents of every crazy-ass videogame gun ever imagined. This too translates into the characters' wardrobe - they all look less like fairy tale characters and more like they just dropped in from the Matrix movies. Or probably more accurately, the Underworld movies.
The movie tries way too hard to be badass, but the badassery is virtually all surface-level. Take Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter ... the reason that movie worked so well is because the character of Abe Lincoln is so fully-drawn, and it becomes this great juxtaposition of a well-mannered, soft-spoken, determined U.S. president using his famously steely will to purge his nation of the undead. But Hansel and Gretel ... well, they're pretty much devoid of defining personality traits. Hansel is Jeremy Renner being very Jeremy Renner-esque ... stern, serious, humorless, etc. That's really all there is to the character. And Gemma Arterton's Gretel is similar - perhaps a tad bit spunkier and more carefree, but mostly, it's just Gemma Arterton in form-fitting leather. Not that there's anything wrong with that ... except the movie doesn't even have her do anything particularly sexy or interesting. That's what makes the excessive use of profanity more jarring than novel - it'd be one thing if it somehow fit with the characters' personalities, but since they have such little personality in the first place, it feels very, very forced.
Renner and Arterton both seem only partially-invested in the film, and I don't blame them. They're given very little to sink their teeth into. Luckily, there are some good supporting players in the mix, like a Peter Stormare, a guy who really needs no reason to go all-out and act crazy - he just does, and it helps inject some life into the film. Same goes for Janssen, who if nothing else, seems to have some fun playing the queen-bitch of the witches. The other thing I'll say for the movie is that it does have some fun sets (i.e. the Candy House) and some really nice f/x. In particular, I dug the design and execution of the troll character - who had a Jim Henson-esque look that reminded me of something out of old-school fantasy films.
If only more of the movie dared to go old-school and embrace straight-up fantasy storytelling. The direction mixed quick-cutting new-school chaos with locations that often look less fantastical and more like someone's backyard. The movie features lots of generic-looking fields and forests, and the movie tends to look drab and bland in a way that makes it feel small-scale and low-budget. And rarely have I seen a movie that has such a lack of geography. Hansel and Gretel seem to just wander and stumble from place to place, ending up in a strange village one minute, and in their childhood home the next. Sadly, the one time the movie really grabs you and takes on an epic, imaginative feel is in the animated opening credits, which are quite well done.
I was not one of the haters who prematurely bagged on this flick. In fact, I was pretty excited going in, and eager to see what I hoped would be a fun, delightfully over-the-top genre-bender. The movie was indeed over-the-top, but a couple of good witch-slayings is not enough to create a great movie or even a great B-movie. Ultimately, I had to do my best to enjoy myself by laughing at the movie and its absurdities, but that only got me so far. I suppose there's some enjoyment to be had in watching this ironically - but not much. This isn't a gloriously bad movie - just a mediocre one.
My Grade: C-