From the outside, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters looks an awful lot like the cousin of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and its vulturous novelized kin. But Tommy Wirkola isn’t trying to mine wit out of genre trash based off of pillars of classic literature or the travails of American history; he just wants to make Sam Raimi flicks. Admittedly, the two transgressions are more or less the same thing- cribbing is cribbing- but watching the unabashed stupidity of Hansel & Gretel unfold feels akin to the experience of watching an eight-year-old in the full throes of a massive sugar rush as they haphazardly recreate scenes from their favorite movie using whatever action figures happen to lie within reach.
Which is to say that it’s hard to hold Wirkola’s enthusiastic appropriation of Raimi’s proclivities against him. Oh, yes, Hansel & Gretel is every bit as shamelessly bonkers and flat-out ludicrous as one might expect- perhaps even more so- but it’s also a direct descendant of the 80’s and 90’s output of both Raimi and Peter Jackson, which speaks to its credit. The family resemblance is so strong, in fact, that Hansel & Gretel almost feels like a film out of its proper time; in an alternate universe, Wirkola would have made his gory and ridiculous update to the well-known Grimm fairy tale two or three decades sooner, and today we’d all look back on it fondly. Maybe in 2033, we’ll do exactly that, since it has become unfashionable to like modern campy, dopey B-movies until three or four years after their release.
I, however, am not too proud to admit that for everything that it is- crude, vulgar, dumb, splattery, silly- Hansel & Gretel also happens to be great fun. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Wirkola’s operating on a level of homage so good that you’ll forget he ever made the appallingly bad Dead Snow; this is a man whose love for spook-a-blast cinema may never be called into question. For some, that may be the dividing line between enjoying the film and admiring his intentions, but for as much as he borrows from Raimi’s bag of tricks, Wirkola has a few of his own up his sleeve. Here, he envisions the titular siblings as witch-slaying action heroes who roam from town to town and kill anything on a broom; when the story kicks off in earnest, they’ve begun investigating the mass-disappearances of children from the town of Augsburg. This isn’t witch business as usual, and the sibling duo determines to get to the bottom of things before it’s…
…okay, maybe I’m proud enough not to finish that sentence. Yes, Hansel & Gretel is that kind of movie; I don’t know how many other ways I can convey the core truth that Wirkola isn’t interested in making a smart film as much as he’s interested in making a thoroughly hilarious and entertaining one. That said, it bears emphasizing that Hansel & Gretel isn’t the type of picture that’s meant to be taken seriously, something that should be immediately apparent after reading the title. If anyone needs further convincing, then consider that this is a film where Hansel suffers from diabetes as a result of being force-fed candy by a witch as a child, where the heroes wield machine-gun crossbows, and where witches know karate. It’s like watching a hyper-violent episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. In short, if you’re approaching it straight-faced, then you might as well be driving on the wrong side of the road.
And frankly that’s a disservice to Wirkola’s efforts here. Amazingly, as much as he apes Raimi in terms of indulgences, he maintains his own visual style throughout the constant showers of gore; he’s not trying to be Raimi as much as he’s giving him a salute, and thanks to his energetic direction and black, multi-layered humor, it works. There’s a sense that behind the camera, Wirkola and his crew are all having a laugh at the parade of absurdities marching in front of the lens while Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton play their roles with just the right blend of self-awareness and sobriety to heighten the hysterics. They know precisely what kind of movie they’re in. Everyone else does, too, from Peter Stormare, playing the crooked sheriff of Augsburg, to Derek Mears, a man who, like Brian Steele, was born to portray monsters beneath fantastic practical effects work. Hell, if nothing else, Hansel & Gretel deserves a viewing just for Mears’ performance as Edward the troll. If I see a better-realized monster in a 2013 movie that isn’t directed by Guillermo Del Toro, I’ll eat my hat.
The fact that all of this (and more!) happens in under an hour and a half makes Hansel & Gretel into a genre gem. Don’t let the Raimi comparisons build it for you too much- it’s no Army of Darkness– but rather, let the name-dropping put you in the right mindset for watching it. Wirkola has managed to make the film that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter ought to have been- lean, violent, funny, and conscious of its own schlockiness.