HANSEL AND GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS – Blu-ray review

It’s about damn time someone updated that silly fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel. It’s so 1800s. You know, the one where the little kids wander into the woods and leave a trail of bread crumbs to follow back home, only to be lured into the gingerbread house by an old lady who doubles as a wicked witch, get locked up, trick the witch and get away to live, ahem, happily after. Already adapted several dozen times in various mediums over the past several hundred years, but never like “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” the story itself needed a reboot. And man, did it get one.

Horrifically violent, demonly stylized and miserably written, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” plops onto Blu-ray disc so you can endure, er, um, enjoy (yes, that’s a better word) all the action, killing and treachery in your own home theater. And, at the end of the day, you’ll sleep soundly knowing that this edition is the unrated Director’s Cut, with even more violence, gore and bad language. Hey, when in Rome…right?

I’ll be blunt: this one was tough to swallow. The scary thing to me is that it had potential it didn’t tap into, and as a result generated a result that really stunk up the place. I was surprised to see how well “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” performed in foreign theaters, however, and as a result, a sequel is in the works with producers Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, Kevin Messick and Beau Flynn returning. I imagine director Tommy Wirkola is back, too (you’ll remember him from 2009’s epic masterpiece about Nazi zombies coming back to life to reclaim their previously stolen treasure, “Dead Snow”), which, should he write the script, will also promise a second dose of miserable dialogue riddled with profanity.

In trying to diagnose “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” I struggle to see it as a comedy, a fantasy flick or a horror title that wants to pull many elements onto one plate and have a bite of everything simultaneously. It’s not good enough to even make a fabled attempt (nice pun, huh?), but at the end of the day, I can see its appeal to an audience that relishes theatrics, gore and excess in film over the film and filmmaking itself. Sigh.

The film opens with Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) enduring the basic fairy tale as we all know it. As the opening credits roll, we learn the pair are growing up and using their hatred for witches, along with some pretty nifty protective powers, to go after them, sort of like bounty hunters. It helps that both are immune to any evil a witch might kick their way, and as grown adults, they land in Augsburg, where Sheriff Berringer (Peter Stormare) is about ready to execute Mina (Pihla Viitala), a young woman accused of witchcraft and suspected in the recent disappearance of many young children. Hired by Mayor Englemann (Rainer Bock) to get to the bottom of things, Hansel and Gretel convince the town that they’re on their side, much to the Berringer’s displeasure.

Eventually, evil witch Muriel (Famke Janssen) takes out everyone the Sheriff sends to seek out the witches who are plaguing Augsburg. Hansel and Gretel eventually capture a Horned Witch (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) who works for Muriel and demand answers for the children’s disappearances. They learn Muriel, another Redhead Witch (Joanna Kulig) and a big ‘ol mean looking troll named Edward (Robin Atkin Downes) are preparing for some ritual that will give them even greater witch power so they can eat children, fly on broomsticks, rip human limbs from torsos, etc.

There’s more to the story, including good witches and a really awesome scene where lots of bad witches get shot up with a Gatling gun, but let’s be honest with one another, shall we? The story is far from the star in “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.” It’s the blood, gore, profanity and somewhat awkward sexual tension that exist as male and female characters struggle for supremacy. You might even enjoy the story that the film leans on every now and again, but it’s challenging because the excessive violence is more or less the star rather than the plot or the actors.

The main actors are totally wasted during “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” and it’s a real shame. I’m a pretty big Jeremy Renner fan, and given his poise but diversity in portraying complex roles, I see his talent and value only increasing as he ages. I also happen to think that Gemma Arterton is beautiful, dynamic and can transition roles with the greatest of ease. Both are completely hung out to dry with a script that is drier than a sunburned neck after a day at the beach. Rest assured that there are many attempts at comedy here, but they all crash and burn because they’re poorly set-up, and some are even more poorly executed. Renner’s role and approach juxtaposes with Arterton’s pretty well, but it’s hard to dig into the characters at all because director Wirkola just wants to blow stuff up, including people, rather than actually tell his story.

Additionally, “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” raises some questions that it doesn’t answer. Just where did these evil witches get the idea that they could take over the world, and why are they so eager to do so? How did Hansel and Gretel get their hands on such impressive weaponry, and how come they’re only average fighters without it? These things, of course, are irrelevant at the end of the film, which runs 97 minutes as an unrated Director’s Cut. I remember thinking I would be able to make it through the entire movie without letting all the negative press I’d heard about it bug me too much, but I was wrong. And the negative press was dead on.

When a director comments in a tabloid interview that he “often wonder[s] how I got this movie made,” it’s a pretty bad sign. When someone feels they can slam on the gas, not let up and mask their poor work with excessive violence and gore to the point where it puts off with greater significance than it puts on, it’s a worse sign. And when the old and new combine together in a creative way that is completely and totally flushed down a toilet running red with blood and body parts, well, you get the idea.

This one isn’t any good, but the fact that “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” had the potential to be is what disappoints me the most. I’m also discouraged because another film is in the works, and I’ll have to write about it in what I’m guessing will be a similar manner to the first title.

No need to make room on the shelf for “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.” It’s too unbalanced to actually settle in one spot anyway.

Video:
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with a 1080p High Definition video transfer that is pretty good, but a step down from awesome. As you might imagine, this title is especially dark, and scenes where nighttime is running the show dominate. There is slightly more grain evident at night than during the day, but it’s not as big a contrast as you’ll notice when you compare close-ups with shots from a distance. The clarity is much better in the close ups, and I appreciate the emotion these shots connote. From a distance, the backgrounds behind the characters seem to either blur or pixelate a bit, while in the close-ups everything on the character’s faces shines vivid and bright. The special effects are well-done, but there are of course moments where you know that you’re seeing a fabrication.

Audio:
I thought the film’s Dolby TrueHD English 5.1 audio track was excellent. The music, which is solid, is very clearly articulated at important action climaxes, while dialogue pierces one’s ears and the body parts clashing offsets. I didn’t detect much natural background noise, and there should have been quite a bit, but at the end of the day it’s the combat sequences that should be the most audible. Trust me, they are. If the script were halfway decent, you’d want to hear the dialogue better than you do, but given that it isn’t any good, I suppose it doesn’t really matter all that much. Additional audio options include French, Spanish and Portuguese 5.1 Dolby Digitals, while subtitle offerings include French, English, Portuguese and Spanish.

Extras:
This Paramount combo pack includes Blu-ra, standard definition, UltraViolet and digital copies of the film. The only version that I can tell possesses the unrated Director’s Cut is the Blu-ray, however. Special features include a few featurettes, including “Reinventing Hansel & Gretel,” “The Witching Hours” and “Meet Edward the Troll.” It’s a mildly below average offering, I’d say.

A Final Word:
For some reason I can’t understand, Paramount picked up this title. Maybe it’s money, or it’s different, or it’s something that they thought might be better than it actually turned out to be. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. I smelled this one from a mile away, and it made me turn the other direction.

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