Much—and now understandably—delayed, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is grim going. This horror-action-comedy pastiche possesses all the terror and suspense and visual pizzazz of a downscale videogame for dull-eyed teens happy to lap up lame wisecracks and lots of gore. Back in 2009, director Tommy Wirkola served up Dead Snow, a horror hit about rampaging Nazi zombies. Apparently that modest success convinced some Hollywood drone that the Norwegian helmer should apply his modicum of talent to H&G, a big-budget, faux-fairy tale about skanky witches and the amazingly uncharismatic siblings (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) who make a living by offing them. That was a mistake.
If there’s any justice, Wirkola’s career as writer-director will hit the wall, in the wake of the catastrophe that is H&G. The man hasn’t a clue how to dream up dialogue that real human beings might conceivably utter, even when stuck in his patently phony Dark Age. Gifted with A-list Renner and the often lively Arterton, Wirkola reduces his leads to unlikable smart-alecks who spend most of their time rolling around in the dirt, punched out by one seemingly unstoppable witch after another. Since H&G is essentially just a string of ultra-bloody dust-ups, it hardly helps that the hack in charge doesn’t know the first thing about directing kinetically and spatially coherent action.
Once upon a time, in the dark of night, a father leads his two kids out into the woods and abandons them. Eventually, Hansel and Gretel fetch up at a grotesque cottage made out of crappy-looking candy and cookies. Inside, a nasty crone fattens them up for the oven. Suddenly brother and sister gang up on the hag, and after a flurry of impossible-to-parse action, she falls screaming into her own cooking fire. Now, in Grimm or Guillermo del Toro, such a nightmare adventure—little kids deserted by their parents, then menaced by a cannibal crone—would be terrifying. Cold-sweat suspense should make us squirm as the witch prepares to cook the traumatized children. But H&G consistently flatlines, never engaging us emotionally, viscerally, any which way. This opening prologue sets the tone: from start to finish, nothing in H&G really moves—or moves us—authentically.