Watching Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is much like watching a shiny hammer hit a shiny nail over and over and over again. There’s something vaguely satisfying about the impact, and it throws up a few pretty sparks from time to time, but there’s nothing unexpected in the encounter between the two surfaces, and the repetition gets dull. The grim heroes don’t have a nuance or more than a hint of emotion between them, and the same goes for the film around them. Plot developments are ladled out in such a perfunctory way, it’s almost possible to hear the hammer shrug apathetically in mid-swing.
Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton play siblings Hansel and Gretel, who, as in the old fairy tale, were abandoned in the woods as children, encountered a candy house, were captured by a witch who wanted to eat them, and escaped by shoving her into her own fire. They grew up glowery, leather-clad, and laden down with fancy anachronistic guns, which look odd amid a Middle Ages setting where the second-highest level of technology appears to be sticks stuck together with mud. When a group of witches starts kidnapping children, Renner and Arterton are hired to hunt them down and return the kids, which they essentially do by plodding to any point in the forest where a local points them, and having a big battle that inevitably involves all of the combatants bouncing off or smashing through a few trees before picking themselves up to try again. Throughout the film, the pattern repeats: A character artlessly tosses out a bare minimum of exposition, the leads troop to a new spot, and a battle commences, with a lot of hissing and gesticulating from the latest woman in crackle-faced monster makeup, and an occasional extra going down in a quick explosion of gore.
Renner and Arterton seem committed to their never-crack-a-smile roles, where the closest thing to a witticism is “Shut up already,” but the film isn’t committed to them as people. It’s particularly telling that Renner’s character, in short order, reveals a secret weakness that never comes to anything, learns he’s wrong about his blind prejudice against witches, takes a lover (who, from his awkwardness, and judging by his driven lifestyle, might well be his first), and—spoiler!—watches her die, all while barely changing expression. Nor does the film give him time to explore or ponder any of this.
Meanwhile, Arterton has her own barely executed shrug of a side plot involving a troll who befriends her, Peter Stormare plays a villainous sheriff who doesn’t last long enough to accomplish anything, Thomas Mann shows up as a witch-hunter wannabe whom the film practically forgets, and Famke Janssen purrs up a storm as the “grand witch,” who’s pretty much evil solely because somebody has to be. If the fights were exciting, the special effects were exceptional, the editing were tight and propulsive, or there were any particular sense of build or momentum to any of this, the lack of characterization or development might be excusable. And if it were risibly over-the-top, it might at least be entertaining. But writer-director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) has instead produced a movie so blandly methodical and dedicated to hitting the required marks that it can’t stop for thought or fun. It isn’t a movie so much as a mechanical process.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’ Spoiler Space.