Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Movie Review: Hansel and Gretel

Directed by Tommy Wirkola. 2013.

Hansel and Gretel is a success of modest ambitions, without a single engaging idea or novel technique in its 88 minutes, and yet I left satisfied. This might seem an unusual and inconsistent position for the author of this paean to excellence and the critic who nitpicked at the foley in Prometheus, but hear me. I could pan Hansel and Gretel as a cynical cash grab, a minimum effort to turn a weekend's profit, and well. . . yeah maybe it is, but hear me. You could pan it for its cheesy special effects and stock sets and weak-kneed plot, but hear me! By dint of fate, directorial might, or editorial genius, Hansel and Gretel holds together, mostly by not getting in over its head. For a first big-budget feature, Tommy Wirkola holds H&G together competently, far better than Peter Berg helmed last year's Battleship. So what does Hansel and Gretel avoid?

First, it avoids plot gymnastics by a lucid narrative and a simple backstory which neatly resolves. There are no long lost brothers who turn out to be the bad guy, no double crosses or double agents, and no pointless diversions to prolong the movie to the 90-minute mark.

Second, for a fantasy movie they keep the magic pretty low key. The witches fling some neat and icky spells, but the craft never gets out of hand. Similarly, Hansel and Gretel have some guns and gizmos, but nothing over the top, until the finale anyway. We don't get to the point, and every filmgoer can tell when a movie turns this corner, when you feel like anything can happen.

Third, the pacing works. H&G neither get bogged down in a twenty minute action scene nor cuts frenetically back and forth between the witch-hunting siblings and the townsfolk.

Lastly, we don't get too much of the supporting characters. Movies with light plots and thinly-sketched protagonists get overwhelmed with secondary characters. Hansel and Gretel has a sheriff and a mayor and a wannabe witch hunter who shadows the siblings, but we don't see them in every scene or every few minutes. None of them accidentally save or ruin the day. They add a little flavor. End of story.

Now we can talk about what H&G gets right.

First, I liked the witches. They're hideous, a refreshing turn after their prettification during the Harry Potter years, and there's even a surprisingly traditional line about how witchcraft (evil deeds) by nature corrupts the flesh. The director was also sensible enough to let the head witch (Famke Janssen) shift into human (i.e. sexy) guise, albeit with no explanation. I also liked that, excepting their leader, the witches don't talk. There's good reason to interpret this as the zombification of witches, the crones are pretty spry as well, but I prefer to understand that witchcraft has left their human faculties gnarled as it has granted them unnatural power. Call me old fashioned.

Next, the main cast gets the job done. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton are a plausible if not dynamic duo, but both, especially Renner, manage a good comic timing. Too, I liked how they fought not just together but as a team who learned to fight together, although the action scenes could have exploited this more. Peter Stormare was over the top as the town sheriff and Finnish actress Pihla Viitala brought an enticing and subtle lustiness to her good witch, Mina. I even liked the troll, Edward. There was something simple and authentic about him after a decade-long deluge of CGI.

Finally, I'm glad the producers didn't soften up the movie to squeak under the PG-13 rating. There's gore, cursing, even a little sorceress skin, and although Hansel and Gretel doesn't take full advantage of its R-rated license, the movie doesn't feel scrubbed. Unfortunately the gore is not particularly well done or used, it's more like red CG mush, and clashes with the movie's otherwise jocular tone. Still, though, it's more honest than watching characters, having been riddled with bullets, laid down pristine on the ground.

Overall, Hansel and Gretel feels like an authentic, modest attempt at a genre picture from an up-and-coming director. We don't enjoy the richness of a complex plot, but we don't have to sit through the pretentions of a wannabe auteur either. It's silly and simple and uneven, but when the motley witch-hunting brigade set off at the end, I was glad I'd gone along.

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