Well… It's here. After years of delays (production was completed in early 2011), which were blamed on everything from MGM's long-standing financial trouble to a late-in-the-game 3D conversion, "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is finally upon us. Starring Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as the grown-up versions of the classic fairytale characters, who have dedicated their lives to ridding the world of broomstick-riding witches, the movie attempts to mix the unstable genres of action, horror and comedy (kind of like "The Mummy" movies, except with considerably more exploding heads).
So, what of "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters?" Is it much ado about nothing? A future cult classic that will be instantly misdiagnosed? Or is this seriously one of the worst things ever forged by the cinematic gods? Read on to find out. And, as Hansel advises in the movie, stay far, far away from the candy.
PRO: It's Got an Okay Title Sequence
The title sequence is pretty...okay. It's illustrated and there's a lot of zooming around because, you know, it's in 3D, and you need to justify that extra cost. (It's also, amazingly, being released in IMAX 3D, which goes to show you how many screens are available in January.) Also, during the credit sequence, you get to see the words "Produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay," which will immediately bring to mind the films that Ferrell and McKay have made together -- "Step Brothers," "Anchorman," "Talladega Nights" and "The Other Guys." Thinking of these movies will probably give you a moment of peace, or maybe even cause a smile to slide across your face, which is more than I can say about anything that's actually in "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters."
CON: Pretty Much the Whole Movie
Where to begin? The movie is a horrible, horrible-looking mishmash, attempting to reconcile storybook mythology with more modern smart-asser-y (in ye' olden times did people really use the F-word so much?) and a smattering of red-paint-against-a-white-wall violence. At the center of the movie are a pair of lead performances so devoid of actual personality and charisma that the rest of the film seems to warp around them, like a black hole threatening to gobble up galaxies. It's also painfully unimaginative, both in terms of the fairy-tale creatures, which look like a combination of children's doodles, S&M fantasies and the kind of thing that wouldn't win a Halloween costume contest, and the overall visual palette. The "locations" for the movie seem to consist of the same 20 feet of vaguely European woods, shot endlessly from a variety of angles (but also in faux "Bourne" shaky cam). It's kind of like when they filmed the first few seasons of "The X-Files" in British Columbia and all of Mulder and Scully's cases oddly took place in the Pacific Northwest.
CON: Some Characterization Would Have Been Nice
What's so funny about "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters," besides the fact that it exists at all, is that so much is made about the hidden past of the two lead characters (the big reveal being not at all surprising), without any actual character traits having been prescribed to them. Virtually the only thing Hansel has going for him is that he gets to make love to a comely village lass. Oh, and that he's a diabetic. Get it? Because he ate so much of the candy house. It is the lamest action movie character trait ever. He literally has to stop a big action sequence so that he can give himself an insulin injection. It's like if John McClane had asthma and right before the finale said, "Hold on Hans Gruber, I need to take a hit from my inhaler."
PRO: Peter Stormare Hangs Around For A While, Then Gets Smushed
Peter Stormare, noted Swedish weirdo, shows up as the town's sheriff. First he tries to kill the girl Hansel gets with, then he spends the middle part of the movie scheming while wearing whatever the nose equivalent of an eye patch is, and finally he gets stepped on by some kind of goblin or troll. God bless you, Peter Stormare!
CON: It's 88 Minutes of My Life I Will Never Get Back
PRO: Zoe Bell Was Apparently In It
"Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" marks the second time in two months that Zoe Bell, the talented stunt woman and actress from "Lost" and Quentin Tarantino's "Grindhouse" half "Death Proof," appears in such an obscured form that you can barely make out that it's her. In Tarantino's "Django Unchained," she played the mysterious slaver with the red bandana and the fearsome axe. Here she's credited as "Tall Witch." When will people give her another meaty performance like in "Death Proof?" Hell, she was even great in that Ed Brubaker web series.
CON: It Could Have Used a Few More Things
The movie takes a patently anachronistic approach to almost everything -- the aforementioned f-bombs, the fact that Gretel seems to be rocking an old timey shotgun -- and in that spirit, I thought I would just start listing things that would make "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" more enjoyable: dinosaurs, UFOs, Abraham Lincoln, a giant mechanical spider, something that resembles a time machine but might be even more dangerous, a Danny McBride cameo, maybe a flying bat monster, a sequence scored to the Soft Cell song "Memorabilia," an animated interlude and one or all of the cast members from television series "Friday Night Lights."
‘Hansel Und Gretel’ (1908)
According to a listing by the British Film Institute, the German studio Fita Film may have produced the first ever adaptation of the story, even ahead of an Edison film in 1909. Running only three minutes, this 105-year-old version depicts the most basic details: a brother and sister are abandoned in the woods, they come across a witch in a gingerbread house who locks them up, they escape and throw her in the oven, and finally they make it back home with the witch’s jewelry.
Ray Harryhausen’s ‘The Story of “Hansel and Gretel”’ (1951)
Special effects legend Ray Harryhausen made a short stop-motion film of the story as one of a five-part series of fairy tales he produced in the 1950s (a sixth, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” began production in 1952 and finally finished in 2002). This ten-minute animation, which calls to mind the later stop-motion holiday specials of Rankin/Bass, is acclaimed for its model craft and its painted backdrops. Here, the witch’s treasure is a lot greater and is pointed out to the children by a white rabbit.
‘Bewitched Bunny’ (1954)
Chuck Jones directed this Looney Tunes short starring Bugs Bunny. The Warner Bros. animation star winds up saving Hansel and Gretel from being eaten by Witch Hazel. But then he replaces them as her prisoner and hopeful main course. There’s a running gag involving the pronunciation of Hansel, which maybe was funny 60 years ago?
‘Hansel and Gretel: An Opera Fantasy’ (1954)
Another stop-motion film, this adaptation of Engelbert Humperdinck’s opera was produced by RKO Radio Pictures and was the first non-Disney animated feature in more than a decade. There’s singing, obviously, with operatic comedienne Anna Russell providing the voice of the witch, as well as lending her likeness to the puppet. Some of the animators on board included future Jim Henson Muppet designers Don Sahlin (Rolf, Bert, Ernie, Grover, Cookie Monster) and Kermit Love (Big Bird, Mr. Snuffleupagus).
‘Hansel and Gretel’ (1955)
Lotte Reiniger’s silhouette animations are unique and wonderful delights. This ten-minute short was one of her Grimm adaptations produced for the BBC. This version doesn’t have the witch killed in her own oven, perhaps because Reiniger seems to have had to set the whole story outside the gingerbread house. Instead, the kids defeat her with help from a goose and a squirrel by breaking her magic stick, which results in a neat effect showing the witch disintegrating into many pieces.
Tim Burton’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (1982)
While still at Disney, <a href="http://unpopped.blogspot.com/2011/12/tim-burtons-hansel-and-gretel.html">Tim Burton was commissioned to direct this short live-action adaptation</a>, which stars an all-Japanese cast, features homages to “Godzilla” and martial arts films, and aired on the Disney Channel once on Halloween 1983. The 45-minute special was recently screened for the first time since at the Museum of Modern Art, which featured an exhibit and retrospective of the filmmaker’s work. Hopefully it will be released more publicly sometime soon.
Cannon Movie Tales: ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (1987)
Like many versions of the story, this is also one part of a series of fairy tale adaptations. Cannon Films produced this and nine others like it in Israel using major American and English actors in main parts. Here, the great David Warner ("TRON") plays the father, Cloris Leachman is the witch and Gretel is played by Nicola Stapleton, who’d grow up to be a regular on “EastEnders.”
‘Freeway II: Confessions of a Trickbaby’ (1999)
Matthew Bright’s second updated fairy tale (he modernized Little Red Riding Hood in ‘Freeway’), this exploitation film stars Natasha Lyonne as a bulimic teenage prostitute who joins up with a serial killer and ends up in the house of an evil cult-leading witch (Vincent Gallo) who rapes and eats children she kidnaps. As if the Grimm brothers weren’t dark enough with their version.
‘Hansel & Gretel’ (2002)
Notable Hollywood makeup effects artist Gary J. Tunnicliffe directed this all-star version featuring a young Taylor Momsen as the sister and the late Lynn Redgrave as the witch. Also appearing in a bookending sequence is Dakota Fanning, while the story within the story has real-life husband and wife Gerald McRaney and Delta Burke as Hansel and Gretel’s parents, Howie Mandel as the Sandman and the voices of Bobcat Goldthwaite, Tom Arnold and Sinbad as a troll, the Boogeyman and a raven, respectively. It was a critical disaster.
‘Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil’ (2011)
In this animated sequel, Hansel and Gretel are major characters, voiced by Bill Hader and Amy Poehler, the subjects of a rescue operation by the Happily Ever After Agency. The kids have been kidnapped by the witch (Joan Cusack) and must be saved by Little Red Riding Hood and friends. But there’s a twist to this version of the Grimm characters that makes it rather unfaithful to the original fairy tale.
‘Hansel and Gretel’ (2007)
Leave it to Korean cinema to give us probably the strangest take on the story yet. Actually, this imaginative horror film is more like a sequel to the Grimms’ fairy tale, but totally modernized as well. It proposed the idea that Hansel and Gretel (and another sibling) stayed in the gingerbread house after killing the witch and are now agelessly waiting for new parents to come along. But every time an adult arrives at the house, they’re trapped and mysteriously killed there. This one is not as hard to find as you might think. It’s streaming at Netflix and Fandor.