Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)

Posted on December 11, 2013

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Why would we watch this? Aside from the fact that it looked gorgeous in all the marketing, and we like the cast?

Tommy Wirkola, a Norwegian who we know from his previous movie, Dead Snow, wrote this movie. As you might know from my previous ZOMG! Nazis! entry, we are big fans of Dead Snow.

Synopsis

Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) survive the gingerbread house and the witch as children. Now, as young adults, they are bounty hunters and their preferred prey is witches.

When several children are abducted from Augsburg, the mayor (Rainer Bock) hires Hansel and Gretel. The sheriff (Peter Stormare) takes it as an insult that Hansel and Gretel replaced him and his posse.

Unfortunately for the sheriff, it will take all Hansel, Gretel, and a local white witch have to overcome the evil that looms over Augsburg.

Short Version

If you were expecting a serious movie after that synopsis, we have a major failure to communicate.

Long Version

This is a fantasy action movie, okay? We’re not going to get rich character development. We need a context and a conflict we can understand easily. We hope the actors bring zest and charm to their portrayals.

We also need a three-act story structure that we can understand. This is critical. We have to care about the conflict. We have to move quickly from event to event. The consequences have to escalate in a way the audience clearly understands.

If we do not care about the consequences, we must be so wrapped up in the characters that their caring about the consequences carries us along.

Hansel and Gretel is one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales that most people of Western European heritage heard growing up. More on that ethnic distinction in a moment. For now, what’s important is that the writer assumes some built-in understanding of the characters. he expects us to accept that they are brother and sister, who love each other enough to face danger together, day after day, year after year.

Now the supporting actors come into play. We need Rainer Bock and the other inhabitants of Augsburg to really sell how upset they are about the children disappearing. We have to feel what they feel. If the supporting cast can sell that, we’re on board for the first act.

By the end of the first act, we have to know that Hansel and Gretel are bad-ass witch-hunters. That way, when something thwarts them at the end of the second act, we’re scared.

In this case, the second act introduces Muriel (Famke Janssen, who is on record as saying she took the part so she could pay her mortgage, a situation with which I entirely sympathize).

Muriel reveals that things are much worse than Hansel and Gretel realized. She has a way to overcome witches’ well-known vulnerability to fire, and she needs Gretel to pull it off. It seems that the last time there was a Blood Moon was when Hansel and Gretel were children, and that’s what the witch in the candy house was trying to do in their childhood.

By the end of the second act, the writer raises the threat from the missing children to the entire world. The third act then becomes about racing to stop Muriel before the Blood Moon ceremony.

Embracing the Crazy

If you are making a genre TV show or movie, you have to embrace the genre. The crazier your premise, the more you must embrace and internalize it. You can’t be ironic. You can’t hold it (or your audience) in contempt.

HGWH absolutely embraces the crazy, right down to Gatling guns and other crazy gadgets invented by the siblings to kill witches.

Flaws

I’ve talked about what HGWH did right. Now let’s address some flaws, right off.

For the first flaw, let me jump back to what I said about Western Europeans.

This movie did not make back its budget on opening weekend. Normally a movie has to make double or triple its budget in the first week to greenlight a sequel, so HGWH was not a success.

I’m sure you see where I’m going. I’ve talked earlier this year about thinking inclusively when creating and selling a movie. I made particular points with Olympus Has Fallen and Haywire. Our Norwegian writer/director, while very talented, made a movie that had less appeal outside an audience of white folks.

To get around that, Hollywood banked on two gorgeous (white) people (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton), tons of action, and 3D. According to the box office numbers, that wasn’t enough.

These are not huge criticisms from a writing standpoint, but they are enormous criticisms from a business standpoint. Hollywood needs to wake up and smell the demographics. There are more non-white people in the United States now than there are white. The largest growing population segment in America is Hispanic. If you greenlight a movie like this, you have to give non-white people a reason to care or they won’t buy tickets.

There were non-whites in Europe in the nineteenth century. They might not have been treated equally well, but slavery had been abolished by then. There’s no reason for the cast to be this white.

The second flaw has to do with Hansel’s diabetes. At first, I thought they were kidding. Hansel ate so much of the candy house that he got diabetes? Really? Pretty sure that’s not how diabetes works. While we’re at it, pretty sure insulin injections didn’t exist in the nineteenth century. I’m not a medical history expert, but I’m pretty sure that’s wrong.

Repeating crossbows? Weird in Europe, but possible since they’d existed for centuries in Asia. Gatling guns? Absolutely existed in the nineteenth century. Insulin injectors? I think not.

Beyond that, the story only makes Hansel’s condition important when the plot calls for it. We do see him inject himself other times, but it’s not clear why and it’s not clear how sick he is until suddenly the plot needs him to drop out of a fight.

I hate that. I’m not saying that all diabetics are weak, fragile, creatures who couldn’t possibly be physically impressive witch hunters. I have too many friends with diabetes to think that. What I’m saying is that if something matters, it should matter. If it doesn’t matter except at plot specific times, cut it out of your story. Better something should fall from the ceiling and conveniently knock Hansel woozy than we throw in this anachronistic treatment that he only needs when it’s convenient to the plot.

Conclusion

We thought this was a rollicking good time, and Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton both gave us something to look at. Definitely keep this one away from the little kids, though. It deserves the R-rating.

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Posted in: Movies