“The idea is, they’ve grown up and they hunt witches,” said producer Adam McKay in 2010. “It’s a hybrid sort of old-timey feeling, yet there’s pump-action shotguns. Modern technology but in an old style. We heard it and we were just like, ‘That’s a freakin’ franchise! You could make three of those!'”
One might be enough — too much, for some tastes. But Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, the 3-D action fantasy that Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola pitched to McKay and his producing partner Will Ferrell in 2009, and which was filmed in the spring of 2011, has finally arrived in theaters. So long was the movie’s gestation that a cheapo version, Hansel & Gretel, from the ripoff specialists at Asylum Productions, is already on DVD.
(READ: Mary Pols’s review of Snow White and the Huntsman)
The Wirkola movie, headlining Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton as the 20-something brother and sister, tries for a mix of comedy and horror, or scary-jokey, in a clash of medieval and modern attitudes. The blend of fairy-tale sentiment and knowing irony worked exactly once, in The Princess Bride, and fails here. But there’s enough visual ingenuity — eye candy, if you will — to make this Hansel & Gretel an intermittently tasty temptation.
(READ: Corliss’s review of The Princess Bride by subscribing to TIME)
After ransacking virtually every comic-book hero in the Marvel and DC canons, moviemakers have turned to an older, public-domain source of adventure stories: the fables collected two centuries ago by Jacob and William Grimm. In just the past couple of years, “Snow White” was morphed into Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman; Amanda Seyfried lost her hood in Red Riding; and “Rapunzel” got an animated twist in Tangled. (Yet to be filmed: the Grimm tales “The Bittern and the Hoopoe,” “The Poor Boy in the Grave” and “The Jew Among Thorns.”) About a decade ago, Terry Gilliam merged fantasy and bio-pic when he cast Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as The Brothers Grimm.
(READ: TIME’s profile of Terry Gilliam making The Brothers Grimm)
The appeal is clear. More than a century before Walt Disney, whom they directly inspired, the Grimms knew that the best way to teach a lesson to children was to scare them witless. “Hansel and Gretel,” for example, turns a warning to kids against taking candy from strangers into a melodrama — a horror story, really — about a gingerbread house, and the wicked witch inside, and the cage where Hansel is fattened up for roasting and the fireplace in which the witch becomes someone else’s dinner.
In modern America the tale might be a screed against childhood obesity, and the witch either Ronald McDonald or Michelle Obama, depending on whether or not you’re aghast that today’s tweens are as plump as turduckens. But this movie is not vegan propaganda; it’s a revenge fantasy about two kids determined to wipe out the species they blame for their early incarceration and their parents’ deaths. From the original Grimm tale, Hansel takes these two morals: “One, Never walk into a house made of candy, and two, If you’re gonna kill a witch, set her on fire.”
Having lost their parents in a village purge, the adult H & G roam the countryside as mercenary missionaries, killing witches for vengeance and profit. (Just witches. “Trolls,” Hansel notes, “are extra.”) The setting, richly realized by production designer Stephen Scott, who worked with Guillermo Del Toro on the Hellboy movies, is old-world rural: a gnarly landscape populated by quaint folk who speak in mittel-European intonations and are tyrannized by a nasty sheriff (Peter Stormare) who tortures the witch suspect Mina (Pihla Viitala) by brutally dunking her head in the public square. Call it water-barreling.
(READ: Corliss on Guillermo Del Toro and the Hellboy movies)
To these refugees from a Renaissance Faire, the star tandem of ultra-violent, American-accented siblings represents an invasion from the 21st-century fantasy universe. Ostensibly on hand to corral a child-napping coven led by the Grand Witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), H and G are really there as salespeople for ornate weaponry. Hansel empties the contents of his ornate shotgun at anything that moves and some that don’t — at one point he kills a tree — and later mans a machine gun like some time traveler from a World War II battlefield. Gretel displays her expertise with a double-barrel crossbow, and uses a prototype of electronic pincers as a defibrillator, when she’s not cracking wise à la Stallone or Bruce Willis. Returning to the candy cottage late in the film, she apostrophizes, “You gotta be f–in’ kiddin’ me.”
(READ: How Jeremy Renner inherited The Bourne Legacy)
The whole kidding trope, which you can bet was ordered by McKay and Ferrell, is pretty lame, and defeats the leads’ attempts to bring shadings to cardboard cartoon characters. Renner, who since making Hansel & Gretel appeared in the megahits Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol and The Avengers, became an official, if not actual, marquee name by replacing Damon as Jason Bourne; but he still lacks the crackle of genuine star quality. Arterton, whose smooth, stolid features suggest a rough sketch for Jennifer Lawrence, had her 15 mins. of movie fame three years ago (in Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia, Tamara Drewe) before retiring to the Julia Ormond Home for English Actresses Briefly Mistaken for Hollywood Hotties. Renner and Arterton share just one tantalizing moment: an intimate closeup in which the two look as if they are about to kiss. The wisp of sibling eroticism may be inadvertent, but it kindles in the stalwart duo a rare moment of fumbling humanity.
(READ: Corliss on Gemma Arterton in Tamara Drewe)
Otherwise, the ones worth watching are a quartet of supporting actress from across the European Union. Janssen (Netherlands) summons some sexy maleficence as the chief witch, abetted by her aide-de-high-camp Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (Norway), who hisses becomingly as the Horned Witch. Pale, vital Pihla Viitala (Finland), as Mina, beguilingly proves the truth in Hansel’s stern dogma that “The only good witch is a dead witch”; she is good and, too soon, she is dead. In a helpful flashback, Kathrin Kühnel (Germany) makes a quick, potent impression as Hansel and Gretel’s mother Adrianna — another good witch who, in the villagers’ vigilante fervor, is burned at the stake.
Benevolent or evil, Wirkola’s witches do more than fly on broomsticks. In a few excellent chase scenes, these sisters of Satan tumble, fight, explode or vanish as if they were part of an infernal Cirque du Soleil. But the most poignant character is a troll named Edward, who does Muriel’s bidding until he takes pity on the humans. A merging of puppetry and computer effects, Edward is performed by Derek Mears and voiced by Robin Atkins Downes. With a face that suggests Rondo Hatton crossed with Richard Kind, he appears to be a dim, lumbering giant; then his anger softens to reveal a fretful generosity of spirit. As the witches here reclaim the species from the perky Hermione and her brood in the Harry Potter series, so does the portrayal of Edward serve as a corrective to the churlish depiction of trolls in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Attention must be paid; reparation must be made.
The film ends with Hansel, Gretel, Edward and the feckless human sidekick Ben (Thomas Mann) anticipating their next adventure. That may be a rash dream. Many movies whose endings explicitly promise sequels — The Golden Compass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter and, for that matter, Arterton’s Prince of Persia — never reach their goal of “a freakin’ franchise.” This Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters may the only Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters; and, if so, no big whoop. But the good witches and the bad ones will linger in moviegoers’ memories. And we’ll always have Edward.