I guess if Hollywood can mash up a president battling vampires, why not aim for mixing an anachronistic fairy tale about vernacular-modernized Brothers Grimm-inspired siblings in a personal war against all the ghastly witches of the world. Alas, poor Dorothy is turning over in her emerald grave, and Toto has left the building (fighting zombie aliens, perhaps?). Delayed by Paramount nearly a year to retrofit this barely satisfying action thriller for 3-D presentation, in the short run the limited payoff would have been the same without the added dimension. (The film opened in Russia a week before it’s U.S. bow—it was filmed in Germany—and the overseas box office will undoubtedly outperform the American theatrical run.) And, holy Willy Wonka! Ye olde malevolent candy-coated cottage in the woods is still in the story, but this time Hansel gets diabetes as his younger force-fed-by-a-witch-over-sugared self, when, with his sister, they believe their parents abandoned them.
Picking up 15 years later, and first unfolding during an amusing, paper headline cut-out opening credit sequence, we find the titular characters (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, both in super-confident, I’M AN ACTION STAR mode) now renowned orphans, their witch-killing achievements heralded across the land. Alas, we soon learn the story is rather barren, the dialogue and mannerisms out of whack, and the action scenes aggressive but about as hackneyed as seen in the recent “Twilight” sequels. There may be some wit afoot, particularly with director-writer Tommy Wirkola’s good-for-a-chuckle rethinking of the missing child notices adorning milk bottles, but the film is still just a one-note, hired guns story—with groupies.
In the small, heavily-forested German hamlet of Augsburg, Mayor Englemann (Rainer Bock) hires the duo to rescue nearly a dozen children abducted by witches for reasons that are later revealed. With an agenda that imperils peace in the region, nasty, black-attired sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare, who also plays a baddie in recent release “The Last Stand”) and his posse of poorly-prepared witch trackers butt heads with H&G. Interestingly, most of the witches are women and quick-footed, so our heroes need souped up retro “steampunk” weaponry (designed by Simon Boucherie) to do battle, the only drawback being Hansel’s constant need for injections, presumably insulin (which wouldn’t be discovered until after whatever era in which this film is set). There’s a blood moon afoot, too, a once-in-a-generation event that allows a not-that-easy opt-out method for witches not to worry about being burnt alive. That’s where the missing children come in, as well as some muscular organ — even though Will Ferrell is one of the film’s producers, it’s not the body part you might associate with his humor — from a white witch.
The chief bad witch Muriel (really?) is played, broadly and without much depth, by Famke Janssen, who has apparently gone on record that she took the part to pay off a mortgage. Because she’s a “grand” variety witch, the rules allow her limited “shape-shifting” abilities (according to publicity materials), but it pretty much just allows her to change from a normal looking Bond Girl to a bad witch with a badder complexion. Helping H&G is the alluring Mina (Finnish actress Pihla Viitala), saved by Hansel from a fiery death, and thus indebted to disrobing for him later. There’s also biggest fan Benjamin Wasser (Thomas Mann), with the scrapbooks to prove it. He is particularly taken with Gretel and likes to tend to cleaning her muddied cleavage after a battle that knocks her unconscious. Also enamored of Gretel is Edward (Derek Mears), a kind-hearted, bashful troll with limited dialogue, but offers enough that will foretell Gretel’s true nature. He’s the best written part in the film.
Escapist stuff here. The Norwegian-born Wirkola, who made a splash with his 2009 comedy-horror item “Dead Snow” about evil Nazi zombies, takes an irreverent approach to “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” and if you can make it past the comic-book action cheese (or just ignore it), you might have more fun with the film than I did.