What You’ll Like:
- Good presentation and modern cinematography
- Well-directed fight scenes
- Slick looking gothy witches
What You May Not:
- Lame villains have almost zero personality
- Next to no chemistry for all characters
- Thin, weightless story and its superficial contrived elements
What You’ll Remember:
- Gretel’s and the head witch Muriel’s initial sassyness (…but only initial…)
So what happens when you take an old fictional character, historic figure, or world renown written fairy tale and give it a 21st century update using the latest (using that term loosely) in-your-face boisterous and flash pop film-making technology and injection of modern-day pop culturally relevant movie monsters as a plot twist (or crutch)? You risk getting something like the critically panned and box office bombed Lincoln: Vampire Hunters, or in this case, Hansel and Gretel:Witch Hunters; a film using the exact same means of something so contrived and ultimately forced as to do nothing but extend a written classic with enough flashy filler to prolong something that would otherwise be told in 10 or 15 minutes. One soon realizes that this is done simply to patronize movie audiences into thinking their ticket money was actually worth the full price of admission. Yes folks, just as has been the case for many of these films that resemble the work of all flash no substance brainless action fests this side of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil films, we have here yet another Hollywood stylized eye candy junkfood feast that will certainly make back all of its profit and end up being sold at a discount price in a couple of months in your local Target bins.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is based on the old German fairy tale (simply named ‘Hansel and Gretel’) about two siblings who enter a witch’s house to be almost devoured, yet are able to outsmart said witch and make off with all of her riches. In this new adaptation, we open with a modern visual of that tale during the film’s intro, with two siblings accidentally walking into a candy covered home in the middle of a dark forest, and are also able to trick the grim-faced sorceress into a fiery oven (minus the riches part). Fast forward to adulthood when Hansel and Gretel, played with decent effort by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, are now adults and established witch hunters in the fictional town of Augsburg, guesstimating somewhere in Europe during a fantasy medieval era, where recently eleven children have gone missing, and our heroes soon discover the trio of witches that are to use the children as a secret ingredient to form a spell for the upcoming Blood Moon (some sort of sacred day); the witches plan on gaining exorbitant power through this Sabbath ceremony. So of course it is up to Hansel and Gretel to track down and destroy those witches responsible.
Initially, our protagonists are introduced as they stop a supposed witch from being hung by the local sheriff and mob protesting for her death. Remember, “she turned me into a newt?” Yea, exactly like that. Said supposed witch is peasant beautiful ginger Mina (notice how beautiful gingers seem to be the new blonde?), who Hansel debunks as being a real witch, thus saving her for some of the few contrived plot conveniences later on in the film (but we’ll get to that). Yet even with that, the film’s direction and script focusing on the duo actually works pretty well here, as our siblings actually come off impressively slick and appealing, most notably Gretel who is already attractive to begin with, being then emphasized moreso by her no-frills attitude and tough as nails demeanor. It is also here that the film also establishes the sort of “mini-villain” local sheriff, played with desperate but failed effort in comedic slick evilness by Peter Storemare; his personal intentions to set out and destroy the bounty hunter couple eventually show to have incredibly weak motivations. See, despite his necessity for these witch hunters, he wants them dead for no other reason than, they make him look bad? Yup, but even that intention is just as vague as many of the plot points in the film. Anyway, Witch Hunters attempts to give us a deeper character arc for both Hansel and Gretel by means of the side plot of their parents, who we are told through a flashback were a man who fell in love with a white witch (or a good witch), and were then both killed due to witch-related activity despite their good intentions. Hansel and Gretel on their free time in the film sort of try and figure out who their parents really were, yet do not really fail as the entire plot point gets some significant attention but ultimately disappears and goes absolutely nowhere. It doesn’t build the siblings up as it may have once been originally intended to on paper, but ultimately feels like most of the things in the film that aren’t flashy fight scenes – short lived, shallow filler of uninspired screenplay writing, and it is what brings Witch Hunters down the most. So in spite of our heroes progressing our story along by fighting witches, tracking information, meeting new characters (including a third sort of “sidekick” of a local boy named Ben played by Thomas Mann, and one of the laziest, poorest and useless examples of comic relief in recent film memory), we never actually get to really know Hansel and Gretel as people; their intentions, likes and dislikes, motivations, or significant passion in what they’re doing. It is all never something we learn or feel, hence we up end caring very little about them, as well as the movie itself. Part of this I blame on a script that hands them nothing more than standard dialogue which only works to progress the story yet does very little for characterization. The other part I blame on their only passable, and sometimes plain wooden performances. Furthermore, the later “romance” between Hansel and the saved peasant which really only works for another plot convenience and not even something that can get us to care for Hansel as any sort of romantic lead. The relationship holds zero chemistry anyway, yet because Mina is as gorgeous as she is I’ll let that one pass; at the very least we learn more about her, even if it’s just a little, and figure that the story could have done well if she was given a bigger part here, perhaps even making the movie even a smidgen more enjoyable.
The last more significant complaint with Witch Hunters would have to be with the trio of witches mentioned earlier, led by Muriel, played with some passion and unfortunately trite screenplay personality by Famke Jannsen, who some may remember as villainous sexy bond girl Xenia Onatopp in 1995’s Goldeneye 007. While she isn’t as sexualized in Witch Hunters, she’s still just as pretty when not donned in white crackly skinned make-up as her witch alias. Yet good shall be said for the trio who actually have a great gothy look as the evil sorceresses, and while they aren’t the most threatening villains, they are given some great cinematography during their darker scenes in their hideout lairs. But then again, it’s all about things LOOKING good, not exactly being good. The biggest issue plaguing these actual Augsburg villains (forget the stupid sheriff, who earlier in a scene so out of place considering the general tone of Witch Hunters almost attempts to rape Gretel) is that they never really do anything all that evil to get us to at the very least cheer for Hansel and Gretel, or even dislike the witches even a bit. Muriel just seems to smile coyly a lot and don her goth look, therefore simply by that it makes her a ruthless villain. Sure, even with branding fire to some parts of Augsburg and shortly interrupting their peace, it’s simply not enough. Moreover, she has a big strong troll at her helm, who in a ridiculously pointless scene despite serving Muriel saves Gretel from the rapist Sheriff for absolutely no reason whatsoever, except by his words that “Trolls once fought along witches,” which also makes zero sense as to why he wants to now work against witches. But finally, on the plus side, the witches do engage in some well directed combat against the bounty hunter couple, which goes to show that despite some cheesy CGI effects, Norwegian writer and director Tommy Wirkola (who’s only notable work being the cultish straight-to-video zombie film Dead Snow of 2009) put his most effort into these fights; good editing and sound effects make these work best (even if the witches do look a tad silly while flying on their broomsticks).
In the end, what we have here is a film with some good looking effects, randomly clever camera angles and stylized fighting shots and scenes, slick make-up, good fighting editing and choreography, impressive cinematography, and an attractive cast, but with a story and screenplay so weak that it makes Witch Hunters the 2013 poster child for style over substance. Even with its R rating, the gore factor is so stylistically fantastical that the impact of the violence is almost completely lost because you really feel like you’re watching an adult cartoon more than anything else. The film as a whole is never unwatchable, and presents itself fairly well during the first 20 or so minutes, but ultimately just becomes a tolerable and contrived piece of controlled chaos which leaves you with nothing to really care for or remember. This here is proof that without deep and intricate characters, a movie will hold very little weight, no matter how many effects and cool Matrix-style shots you can conjure up.
A fairly shallow trio of behind-the-scenes featurettes, none really focusing on anything all that specific. There is one which talks a bit about the troll, but none of these are anything anyone will really care about after watching a movie you end up not really caring all that much about. The sad part here is that there actually aren’t any trailers whatsoever; and by this I mean, not only are there no trailers for Witch Hunters itself, but none for any other film either. If you’re a fan of commentary you’re also in for a shock as there is none. At the very least we do get a well directed set of featurettes that contain some director and producer interviews within their brief run times.
Graphics and Sound:
Witch Hunters is a fairly good looking blu ray transfer, which shows little to no distortion in any scene and contains some pleasingly deep blacks during darker moments (which are a lot). While the film does look mostly clean, the general color palette looks a bit flat, and the feeling that things should have been a bit more vibrant may be noticed by more meticulous HD viewers. So while the film does look above average, unfortunately the same cannot be said about the sound quality. Witch Hunters does not have the most engaging soundtrack in the world; it’s your fairly standard set of predictable orchestrals for this type of film, but one will notice how unpronounced the music actually is during viewing. The score just sounds too pushed to the background compared to the rest of the film’s effects, and general volume is also a bit too low as a whole, so be sure to raise the volume a few notches more than usual. The good news here is that louder moments never become too carried away or obnoxious, but considering the lack of impact in the sound overall this may have been a good thing.
It is a good thing that the film only runs at a hair less than 90 minutes, because considering how shallow and weightless the meat of what Witch Hunters should have been is mostly failed, one may be lucky to still care enough to stay awake til the end. This is a loss because such a fairly tale for a modern film adaptation idea should have worked, and on a visual front it does, but it’s clear that Tommy Wirkola just resorted to the superficial cliche Hollywood movie textbook in order to give him an excuse to put some snazzy effects on screen, make a few dollars and put another bullet of an American movie on his resume. And no amount of blood and gore in a desperate plea to appeal to mature audiences sick of PG-13 remakes will give you the blockbuster hit you perhaps dream of having. I’d say 1.5 blood moons out of 4 – a below average attempt with only pleasing visuals and nicely shot fight scenes as its saving grace.