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Jeremy Renner is always swell but I never liked Gemma Arterton in anything before.

If, like me, you expected Hansel & Gretel: Witchhunters to be just another shitty Van Helsing you might be curious to find out that this is not the case. Owing more to Sam Raimi than Stephen Sommers, Hansel & Gretel is an irreverent, sassy B-movie that uses the fairy tale as an excuse. It’s light, breezy, and full of little details and jokes that usually work in spite of being a betrayal of the ostensible 19th Century German countryside setting.

I was consistently tickled by Hansel & Gretel and while it’s a bit too self-indulgent to be completely transcendent, it does what Your Highness also attempted but failed to accomplish. It uses tropes and ideas from fantasy, takes the piss out of them, and feeds them back to you in a satisfying way that acknowledges both a sense of humor about, and an affection for, the fantasy genre. Be warned that it’s a fairly low budget movie and you may get tired of seeing the same sets over and over, but it’s all worth it for the ques que fuck climax where they basically inhale deeply from a big cup full of insane witch and blow it all over your face.

It’s glorious in its own semi-retarded way.

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Each witch is highly individuated by design.

Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) were once little kids left in the woods by their dad. You know the tale. They encountered a candy house, a cannibalistic witch, and came out on top. This movie is the story of what happens when they grow up and continue to hunt and kill witches for money. They are widely known and admired or hated wherever they go. The secret to their success is being impervious to the offensive magic witches cast through wands. There’s a bit of voiceover explaining some of this junk food lore, in which Renner deadpans anachronistic swearing like a Game of Thrones character by way of Quentin Tarantino.

That’s when you realize this isn’t another Van Helsing. Not only is this the movie where Hansel gets diabetes from eating too much witch candy, it’s also the movie where a rampaging troll bloodily dispatches Peter Stormare. This is gory, gratuitous good times. And all it’s trying to be is a fun movie based on a stupid premise. A lot of times self-seriousness completely implodes similar movies. Last year’s Battleship would have been a damn sight better had Peter Berg consistently remembered that no one, least of all him, was to be taking that movie seriously. It’s now rare that we get a movie worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Army of Darkness (an ancestor for this movie, no doubt) but that’s Hansel & Gretel more or less.

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The witch design is, for the most part, simple and effective.

The central plot revolves around a town called Oxburg where Hansel and Gretel have been hired to track some missing kids and kill the witches responsible. It turns out that the witches, led by Muriel (Famke Janssen, who took the role to pay her mortgage and it shows) have stumbled onto a way to cancel out their weakness to fire. This is, of course, an elaborate ritual with which directly involves Hansel and Gretel.

Janssen is weak-sauce, largely phoning it in, as the villain. Having a screwball character actress willing to ham up this role would have done the movie some favors, think a female Stormare (who is actually restrained-ish as the malevolent town sheriff), but the witches are saved from complete turgidity by their design. Muriel’s main accomplice is Horned Witch (pictured a ways above and played by Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and she brings an affected, twitchy energy to her performance that goes a ways toward making up for Janssen’s low-effort gravitas. I think Berdal knew what kind of movie she was in while Janssen just did not care.

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Ben’s whole deal doesn’t quite work out.

For being less than 90 minutes long, Hansel & Gretel is determined to squeeze in as many subplots as it can. Because none of them is particularly demanding, it doesn’t really hamper the movie. That doesn’t mean they all work equally, though. Discussing them systematically will be a great way to sort out some of this movie’s inspired bits, and the ample reasons to like it in general, so that’s not a bad way to approach the next chunk of this review.

First of all, there’s Ben (Thomas Mann) who is a send-up of fandom, basically. He even has a leather-bound tome of newspaper clippings chronicling the exploits of the witchhunters. He asks them stupid questions and theoretically endears himself to them and us. This subplot doesn’t work very well, even though Ben is less grating by the end of the movie. It’s just a bit weird to have this guy around. He’s kind of creepy and it isn’t clear why Hansel and Gretel put up with him. Then there’s when he’s used lazily to key into some family backstory.

The backstory isn’t weak exactly, but it seems a bit hard to believe that the siblings would forget which fucking town they lived outside of. Yes, it turns out that Oxburg is the nearest town to the house they grew up in. This subplot is about the realization that their mother was a “Grand White Witch” whose heart would be needed for Muriel’s ritual if she weren’t dead. Now it falls to Gretel who basically inherits the witch title (we see no special powers, but there’s a nice moment where she picks up Muriel’s wand). That their mother is a witch means they need to revisit their “kill all witches policy”.

Which leads to another subplot. When they first get to town, Hansel and Gretel forcibly save a woman who is about to be burnt for a witch. Demonstrating their superior witch-lore, they point out that she shows none of the signs of decay and rot that signify witches. Ironically, she is a witch but a white one and we learn later that not all witches are evil. Her gratitude to the siblings saving her life naturally manifests as a need to fuck Hansel. It’s barely a romance and Hansel doesn’t seem too upset when she dies. It’s like a Western, where poor Mina (Pihla Viitala) is just a pit-stop and thus collateral damage. This one works better because Hansel & Gretel often feels like an episode of a TV show. If it were, Mina is exactly the kind of character that lives and dies between episodes: there only as a device to teach a lesson, highlight a theme, etc. Maybe it’s just familiarity that makes it rankle less than the Ben thing, because it is clear that Mina could have been a three-dimensional character and that would probably be a better play.

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Mina is totally a witch.

The zealous town sheriff (Peter Stormare) is actually kind of right about Mina, though not that she deserves to die. He is also mad at Hansel and Gretel for what he sees as them causing a deadly attack on Oxburg. This pushes him to get in the way as much as he can. When he’s thwarted enough, he corners Gretel in the woods and tries to kill her. Stormare is pretty restrained in this movie, but the whole “not everybody likes the witchhunters” thing plays especially since he isn’t simply some jerk, but a marginalized lawman humiliated by what he sees as a couple of loose cannons. This doesn’t justify what he does to Gretel, obviously, and the movie isn’t really deep enough to sustain any subversive element of “maybe Hansel and Gretel cause more trouble than they solve” that could have emerged from this subplot. Rather than being a distraction or a sign of missed opportunities, the sheriff thing sets up the inclusion of Edward (Derek Mears and Robin Atkin Downes doing the voice).

Edward is a fucking troll. Trolls, Edward tells Gretel, serve witches. However, Edward has a sensitive nature and big, adorable fucking eyes. He’s sympathetic to Gretel and the children the witches make him kidnap. He eventually sides with Hansel and Gretel after she returns his kindness and Muriel abducts her to cut out her heart. Having something like Edward in this movie just drives up its profile considerably. He’s a practical effects creation, first of all, and he stomps motherfuckers exactly how you’d hope an 800 pound troll would stomp motherfuckers. Plus, that big ugly mask and soulful blue eyes just work the sidekick level in a way that skinny little uberfan Ben never could.

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Edward is pretty much the best thing in the movie.

Like the fact that Edward isn’t CG, it’s really the little things that make Hansel & Gretel enjoyable in spite of its shallowness. Things like missing children posters tied to milk bottles. The aforementioned diabetes thing. And, of course, the big witch convention that kicks off the climax of the movie.

Similar to how The Cabin in the Woods basically said “fuck it” and threw everything out in the last 20 minutes, Hansel & Gretel gets a pile of uniquely designed, interesting witches that feel like a handful of people sat in a room on zoomers doodling pictures and discussing the movement patterns of two witches attached at the back.

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Which of course made it into the movie.

It’s just a richness of creativity on display. This is also where Hansel & Gretel shows some creative ambition. Yeah it’s a bit of the punk rock variety, maybe, but it’s also a clear derivation from scenes like the Troll Market in Hellboy 2 or the Cantina in Star Wars. And as I said, the homage driven wondercarnival that is the last 20 minutes of The Cabin in the Woods.

The nice thing, too, is that these witches don’t just stand there and do nothing. Some run away when Hansel shows up guns blazing, but others fight back and we actually get to see some of this creativity in action. This brings me to a final bit of praise for the movie, and the element that surprised me most. All the action scenes in Hansel & Gretel show remarkable creativity in their choreography and execution. It’s not like anyone went back to reinvent the wheel, but you definitely expect blue collar at best in a movie like this. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the action is one of the best things in it. A great example would be Hansel’s fight with the Siamese Twin Witch pictured above. Another would be Gretel throwing down with Horned Witch earlier on.

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This movie is just trying to make you happy.

I have a special soft spot for stupid movies that aren’t afraid to both acknowledge their own stupidity and get wildly creative. Hansel & Gretel does both so while I list some stuff that doesn’t work, it ultimately doesn’t detract much from the overall experience. Applying my usual degree of analysis to a movie like this one always feels like it’s missing the point. Better to just counter the negative impressions most people probably have, do some championing, and hope it all sticks.

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