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This sly and ingeniously wicked movie tells the story of the brother and sister team seeking to avenge their parents' deaths. But after a lifetime of hunting witches, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) now must face an evil greater than anything they've seen: a terrifying new threat so massive, it could destroy the world as we know it. (From Paramount’s official synopsis)

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
High concept, fairytale/mythology-based action movies do not have a glowing history in Hollywood. Every time some executive gets a bright idea to mine the public domain for their next franchise, we end up with financial and critical debacles on the level of Van Helsing, The Brothers Grimm, or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. These films (none of which I entirely hate, by the way) aren’t just flops, they’re public failures and the butt of industry jokes. But someone in Hollywood swears that there’s money to be made with this brand of mash-up, even when years of cinematic history shout to the contrary. The latest attempt at such genre mixing is Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – an R-rated, 3D action extravaganza featuring adult versions of the Brothers Grimm characters reeking horrible vengeance on the supernatural baddies that tried to kill them when they were young. Once again, the concept is not original – Hansel and Gretel have been given several ‘adult’ makeovers in recent years, including popular comics, like Bill Willingham’s Fables and Nick Percival’s Legends: The Enchanted (both optioned for the big screen), popular television series, like Once Upon a Time, and, of course, not so popular movies. In fact, a quick glance at imdb.com reveals four other Hansel and Gretel-themed movies released in the year 2013 alone, including Hansel and Gretel 3D, Hansel & Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft, Hansel & Gretel Get Baked, and the simply titled, hard-horror version, Hansel & Gretel (Korean director Yim Pil-sung also directed Henjel gwa Geuretel in 2007).

Sometimes the low expectations set by yet another terrible idea breed entertaining results, because, despite being unoriginal, silly, and, for all intents and purposes, a waste of talent, Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters isn’t half bad. The key here is simplicity and the filmmakers knowing exactly how stupid their movie is. Wirkola is a Norwegian director making his Hollywood debut. He’s best known for Dead Snow (aka: Død Snø), a chaotically violent throwback to the gore comedies of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Dead Snow is bloated and so engrained with homage that it never manages to stand on its own, but did show Wirkola’s potential as a strong visualist, so the solid action direction here isn’t a complete surprise. For every ounce of Sam Raimi influence seen in Dead Snow, there’s about five litres-worth in Hansel & Gretel. At times, the Raimisms are too on the nose (some of the witch designs are straight out of Army of Darkness), but the energy achieved throughout the film is palpable and correctly aped from the master. The action is a bit over-cut, but the geographical momentum makes sense, the majority of shots are long enough to absorb, and he doesn’t lean too hard on the slo-mo button. The lack of overly shaky camera work (possibly due to the limitations of the 3D format rather than a conscious choice to avoid visual chaos) is welcome as well.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Wirkola has also been paying attention to Guillermo del Toro’s wonderfully baroque films. The handsome and decorative production design goes a long way when it comes to selling goofy one-liners and anachronisms, as do the diverse witch designs. This kind of joke is almost always funnier when told with a straight face. The modern language and gags are dumb, but maintained, which is also important. My one major problem with the film, based on the realistic criticisms available to the material (it was obvious that it was going to be predictable and dopey from the get-go), is that it has some cavernously dull downtime between fun action set-pieces. There are just too many ideas floating around and not enough of them are interesting. I did watch the extended version for the sake of this review, though, and have been told that the theatrical version has a better overall flow (ten minutes is a pretty long time). The advantage of the extended version is some unrated gore, however. That’s a pretty big selling point for a movie like this. I hear that the supposed sequel will probably be PG-13, which is a kind of a waste, because Wirkola does know how to shoot hilarious graphic violence.

Jeremy Renner may have officially worn out the welcome he earned with his Oscar-nominated turn in The Hurt Locker. At this point, he’s basically playing the same character over and over throughout a bevy of unrelated franchises. Brad Bird pulled a glimmer of comedy from his stony façade for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, but, otherwise, his goal as an actor appears to be to suck the fun out of otherwise lighthearted material. Gemma Arterton is a bit different. She’s clearly miscast as Gretel, but miscast in the best way possible. She’s been totally wasted as a inactive damsel in Hollywood blockbusters, like Prince of Persia and Clash of the Titans, so it’s satisfying seeing Wirkola trying to make her into an action heroine. Even if she isn’t entirely up to the challenge, there’s something fun about her unique attempts at badassery. No one is having more fun than Famke Janssen, though, who is working on full femme fatale mode as Muriel, the head witch – something she hasn’t done full-force since X-Men 3 (which might be the only enduringly good thing about that movie). Peter Stormare is also expectedly entertaining as a corrupt sheriff, but my favourite character is Edward the troll – one of the most endearing and well-crafted animatronic suits I’ve seen since Hellboy 2.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Video


Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was shot digitally in mixed 3D and 2D with the leftover 2D stuff post-converted for its 3D theatrical releases. This review pertains to the entirely 2D version of the film, presented in 2.40:1, 1080p. The first thing most viewers will notice is that this is a very, very dark movie. Fortunately, the HD image is usually sharp enough to ensure that the highlights are clean and discernable – the exception being wider night shots, which look entirely black. At least the blacks levels are consistently deep and pure. The digital photography looks generally filmic, aside from some ghosting/blending effects during wide-shot action. There’s a lot of high contrast texture, light digital grain patterns, and the colour gradations are more dynamic than the likes of a lot of digital HD movies. Wirkola and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain use a lot of wide-angle lenses and deep focus, likely for the benefit of the 3D photography, but it makes for nice front-to-back details in 2D as well. The colour timing is certainly stylized, but also pretty eclectic. Interiors are gold-tinted with blue and purple highlights (sometimes veering into orange & teal territory). Daylight exteriors (a term I use loosely, since so much of the film is clearly shot on sound stages) are also pretty warm, sometimes to the detriment of the darker, cooler hues, but the consistent browns and flesh tones are very nice. Images of lush vegetation are gorgeous and, as expected from the gory content, reds are quite vivid.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Audio


This Blu-ray features a strong Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack, though, like most Dolby TrueHD tracks, however, I’ve found that my receiver needs to be turned up to higher volume levels than it does for DTS-HD MA tracks. Volume levels aside, this is a consistently aggressive and enjoyable track. The stereo and surround channels are constantly trilling and vibrating with activity. The obvious bright spots are the action scenes. These are brimming with clanging weaponry, chunky impacts, and the whooshing sounds of broom-flying. Some have the added value of booming, fiery explosions too. The witches have all been outfitted with otherworldly gurgling and growling noises that give the mix another layer of texture and the basic effects work sometimes takes on comical extremes, even during relatively quiet expositional sequences. Atli Örvarsson’s musical score is, for lack of a better word, silly. But that’s okay. A lot of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is silly. Örvarsson blends power metal and heavy string/choral themes (a popular thing to do in Norway), giving the action scenes the right brand of over-the-top impact. The music is also spread widely over the side and rear channels, creating a solid wall of music that doesn’t disappear into or overwhelm the effects and dialogue.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Extras


The rather brief extras begin with Reinventing Hansel & Gretel (15:40, HD), a quick look at the film’s production, from concept pitch to casting, characters, tone, and Wirkola’s cameo. The Witching Hours (9:00, HD) covers the film’s specific mythology, designing a wide range of witches (most of which appear all to briefly on screen), and the special effects processes. Meet Edward the Troll (5:30, HD) wraps things up with a look at the film’s most charming character. The featurettes include interviews with Wirkola, producer Kevin Messick, makeup effects designer Mike Elizalde, and actors Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Derek Mears, and Peter Stormare.

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Overall


I actually enjoyed Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, but can’t recommend it whole-heartedly, because, well, it’s really dumb. But if you’re expecting it to be really dumb (and why wouldn’t you, based on that concept) you’re in for an entertaining, well-shot, and gory little movie. This 2D extended version has a brilliant 1080p transfer and an aggressive Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, but, sadly, few extra features. Do note that the theatrical cut is only included on an SD DVD if you purchase this version.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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