Review: ‘Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’ sets the bar high for 2013’s worst films

I reviewed Tommy Wirkola’s “Dead Snow” at Sundance back in 2009, and I was not a fan.  As I said in that piece, “‘Dead Snow’ takes a really great monster to build a film around – Nazi zombies – and somehow adds up to total mediocrity in execution.”  Well, looks like Wirkola is two for two now.  When you’re making a film called “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” you can approach it as a horror film first, or you can approach it as a dark comedy, or you could perhaps approach it as a really boring action movie that flubs both the horror and the comedy.

Guess which approach Wirkola opted for.

The script by Wirkola and Dante Harper opens with a very dark rendition of the classic Hansel and Gretel story, and right away, it feels like they’re rushing to get through that moment instead of taking the time to tell it.  I think it’s actually sort of clever to start with that fairy tale, let us really see what that witch is like, and then once the kids deal with her and save themselves, jump forward to see that they’ve taken this on as their life’s work.  I can see how that premise could work.  It just doesn’t work here, in this film.

Part of the problem, as I mentioned, is tone.  FIrst, you’ve got the witches, and they’re portrayed as creepy monsters, as many different types of witch as there are actors to play them.  There’s some nice make-up design, and Famke Janssen as the main witch, Muriel, certainly does what she can to make the role interesting.  But any good work done in thinking up the witches in the film is undone by the script, which not only fumbles the horror elements, but which also manages to make every action scene noisy without ever once making one of them thrilling.

Jeremy Renner is on autopilot here.  There’s nothing interesting about the character, and Gemma Arterton is similarly beached by the script.  Every conversation, ever line, every beat is about plot.  They are blanks as characters.  It’s like the thinking stopped with “… and then they fight witches.”  As you can imagine, if there’s nothing interesting about the main characters, the rest of the cast doesn’t stand a chance.  Thomas Mann, the start of last year’s “Project X,” plays a local kid who has collected newspaper clippings about the witch-hunting career of Hansel and Gretel, and he is excited to get a chance to help them with their latest job.  Honestly, the most interesting character in the film is a troll played by Derek Mears and voiced by Robin Atkin Downes, but Wirkola doesn’t know what to do with the character.

That’s really the easiest way to sum up the entire production.  There’s good work by individual departments, and it certainly looks like a movie, but it is inert from opening to closing.  It is a simulated movie.  I hate that feeling, like everyone stopped working the minute someone said the title, like that was all the effort anyone needed to make.  I had the same reaction to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” but at least that film came first.  How lazy is that?  “Hey, someone took a famous name and a monster and put the word ‘hunter’ after it.  We could do that, too.”  Yes, but why?  I can’t imagine Wirkola would ever take this movie down from the DVD shelf and watch it for pleasure, so why should I cut it any slack?  I love horror movies.  I love action movies.  I love wicked crazy comedies.  I love it when someone plays some sort of clever meta-textual game.  I love all the ingredients here, but it’s so flat that I can’t, in good conscience, even give it a pass.

The greatest crime in modern studio filmmaking is the waste of assets.  When I see a small film where the filmmakers obviously didn’t have much at their disposal but they have figured out how to make the most of it, I can’t help but give the filmmakers an extra bit of credit for the way they met the challenge.  So the opposite is also true.  When I see a filmmaker given a wealth of resources and the support of a studio like Paramount and what they come up with is this dull, this uninspired, this much of a waste of time and money, I find it just that little bit more offensive.  Wirkola’s work so far is like a big plate full of soyburgers that look delicious but which have no flavor at all, undercooked and unpleasant.  Spare yourself and skip this trip through the woods, because there’s nothing to see here.

“Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is open in theaters everywhere today.