Advertising itself as a classic tale with a new twist, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters arrives with surprisingly few fresh ideas. For the most part, writer-director Tommy Wirkola (Dead Snow) plays it straight, offering a relatively conventional fairy tale adventure film. This is particularly baffling due to the involvement of producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, who previously collaborated on madcap comedies like Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers. The few gags that do make it onscreen are wooden, familiar, and hopelessly square. The film’s action set pieces are also disappointing, repeatedly striking the same notes and failing to cash in on the opportunities provided by the film’s R rating.
However, the overriding failure of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is one of tone. Wirkola doesn’t seem to know what kind of film he’s making. Is it a serious-minded work of classicism or an exercise in wisecracking genre irreverence? Is it a family-friendly adventure film or a stomach-turning gore-fest? Wirkola tries to sprinkle in a bit of everything, but with no clear sensibility to order his choices.
In light of this sloppy approach, it’s puzzling that Jeremy Renner—an actor who appears to be in great demand—signed on to star. Given soap opera-level dialogue and little more than a few weapons to define his character, he delivers a flat, humourless performance. The same could be said of most actors in the film, though there are moments of levity in Peter Stormare’s eccentric turn as Sheriff Berringer and Edward the troll is an inspired creation, even if he doesn’t quite gel with anything else onscreen. If Wirkola had approached the whole production with the sense of fun that informs these characters, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’ might have emerged as the unique experience it hopes to be, rather than the tedious chore it really is.