Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters comes from producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, which says a lot about what one should expect from the film, and it wants to be what we expect: A big, ball-shittingly dumb horror comedy with great kills, a smattering of snarky one-liners, and a keen ability to pulverize brain cells. But the talent difference between writer/director Tommy Wirkola and a director like Sam Raimi, who would’ve crafted the perfect version of this movie, is the difference between Hansel and Gretel working as a spirited bloodbath of shotguns and splattered witch brains and what is onscreen: A flat, lifeless action pic that fails on both the horror and the comedy counts.
The problems are many, least of which is the barely existent script, which follows Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) as they attempt to put down a coven of witches who have stolen the children of a small town with the intent to sacrifice them under a once-in-a-generation blood moon, making themselves invincible to fire. In their way are Hansel and Gretel, who have an arsenal of weapons and a mysterious background: Their parents disappeared when they were young, leaving them to fend for themselves in the forrest where they came upon a gingerbread house and nearly found themselves inside a witch’s oven. With the exception of the town McCarthyite (Peter Stormare), who accuses anyone with a pulse of witchcraft, a helpful troll (Derek Mears), and a good witch with whom Hansel has a crush, there’s very little in the screenplay to even elevate it to bare bones. It’s like a femur and a mandible, Gemma Arterton’s cleavage, and a lot of action sequences.
That wouldn’t be to Hansel and Gretel’s detriment if the action sequences were spirited instead of limp, if more attempts were made to inject one-liners appropriate to the film’s tone, or if Jeremy Renner, in any way, could provide a capable comedic presence. Unfortunately, anyone who has seen Renner’s stint as host of “Saturday Night Live” knows that Renner doesn’t have it in him: He’s tone deaf. He doesn’t have the timing or the swagger to pull off the role of comedic bad-ass. He’s like an accountant with a shotgun and a leather jacket, a guy who had his sense of humor surgically removed by dramatic directors. Meanwhile, Arterton doesn’t fare much better, although at least she has low-cut outfits to distract us from the fact that she’s completely out of her element. Even the ever-capable Famke Janssen, a natural fit as the Witch Queen, is muted by Wirkola’s floundering, ineffectual direction.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters simply doesn’t work. It not only fails as a competent film, it can’t even get so-bad-it’s-good right. I wouldn’t describe it as a completely miserable experience because Arteron and Renner are decent gun-toting eye candy, but it never comes close to achieving the massive orgy of guns, grins, and witch-killing so many of us were hoping would be on display. The bullets fly in Hansel and Gretel, but they never zip.