Tommy Wirkola’s English language debut and follow-up to Norwegian horror-comedy Dead Snow, the questionably titled Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, lurches its way into cinemas after spending well over a year gathering dust on a desolate shelf. Its scars can be felt as the film has an almost unfinished feel to it, as if it’s trying too hard to lay the foundations for a future franchise that will, if there’s any justice in the world, never, ever come to fruition.
Abandoned in the forest as innocent youngsters by their father, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) rise up against a foul evil witch who lures them into a house made of sickly-sweet, fattening candy, igniting their thirst for vengeance. Years later, now as adults and fully-fledged witch hunters for hire, they find themselves in a small rural town investigating a dastardly scheme imposed by evil witch Muriel (Famke Janssen).
It would be cruel to label Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters as complete disaster, as it’s well paced and contains the odd peppering of nervy delight (Janssen’s pantomime villain, in particular, is a hoot). Its narrative is so precarious though that after a neat pre-credits sequence that subverts Hansel and Gretel’s well-retold gingerbread house encounter in brutal fashion, it rapidly dies a slow – and extremely uncomfortable – death as it wobbles and spasms for life.
It’s clear from the off that Wirkola is out of his comfort zone here, with even his trademark brand of all-out violence, bloodshed and action feeling somewhat contained not only by irritating jump cuts and bad CGI, but also by the unnecessary 3D that makes even the barbarous deaths seem diluted and extremely dull. There’s the occasional sleek action sequence mixed with ingenuity, but these are too few are far between to induce more than a slight twitch of excitement amongst the audience.
Arterton and Renner do their best to deliver the goods lacking elsewhere, but switch to autopilot almost immediately after their introductions. It’s not enough, especially when even the context is irritatingly unplaceable (it’s clearly set in a rural German location, yet Hansel and Gretel have American accents and modern-looking weapons). The film has an almost unfinished, underdeveloped nature to it, which creates a lack of believability and interest in what’s happening.
There’s a good film in here somewhere – one that, if built upon a stronger script, could have been a real treat as a twisted, bloodied spin on what’s essentially become a children’s fairytale. As it is though, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is directionless and mind-numbingly stupid (a romance between Gretel and a troll named Edward, anyone?), bar Janssen’s enthusiasm and a mercifully short running time (it’s kept to a brisk 88 minutes).