“I can make it last,” Famke Janssen purrs midway through Hansel and Gretel, and we the audience have the horrifying suspicion that she means it. You can see what the movie wants to be – a Raimi-esque lark with tons of fun-filled anachronisms to spice up its fairy tale plot. Unfortunately, what it wants to be doesn’t come close to what it is: an effects-laden bore without the first idea of what to do with its marvelous concept.
You can smell the Paramount execs turning off their brains once they nail the title. Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arteron) survive their famous encounter with the wicked witch, then grow up to track down all of her ilk. They use a variety of steampunk weapons – most more ridiculous than clever – to counter the black magic of their foes, along with a strange immunity they both share for reasons that scream “third act revelation.” A Grand Witch (Famke Janssen) appears to have their number with a mystic ceremony that will render her kind immortal or some damn thing. For these two, it’s all in a day’s work.
The premise doesn’t need much to succeed: a twinkle in its eye, the clever exposition of a few neat concepts, copious use of Broomstick Fu, and a couple of good performances. Hansel and Gretel nails the twinkle, but drops the rest of the concepts like live grenades. It can’t generate any sense of energy or fun. Its material arrives with only the most perfunctory of efforts and ends only when director Tommy Wirkola finds some other ideas worthy of his attention. The action falls flat, the fights are badly choreographed, and even the 3D feels listless and dead.
A large part of that stems from its shocking deafness of tone, such that every presumably interesting idea ends up flopping on the ground like a landed fish. The deliberate anachronisms, in particular, grate on the nerves, deployed with a wink and a nudge but devoid of the cleverness we need to share the joke. Again and again, the film tosses out some interesting notion, and again and again, it abandons said notion in favor of the most expedient clichés available. Where do they get all their wonderful toys? Hansel and Gretel doesn’t care. How do the witches gather new recruits? Answering that would require effort. Nothing grabs us about this world, and even the surprisingly good witchy make-up can’t get anyone into the spirit of things (with the exception of Janssen, whose over-the-top performance at least shows some effort).
The film also falls far too deeply in love with its heroes. It can’t provide them with an interesting personality, of course, and tries to compensate by emphasizing how much they kick ass in absolutely every situation. No threat feels too big for them and no obstacle makes us worry for their safety in any way. Renner looks bored out of his mind, while Arteron merely treads water, a surprise considering how much the film wants us to like them. Good heroes need to be tested; those tests form the basis of any interesting drama. Hansel and Gretel botches that notion so thoroughly that one wonders whether it understands storytelling at all.
If it does, we sure can’t see it. Boredom sets in within the first ten minutes, aided by its lackluster action and frustrating inability to make good on its promises. That soon evolves into irritation, then desperation as the seemingly endless climax steadfastly refuses to run the closing credits and put us out of our misery. They should have taken notes from Terry Gilliam, whose Brothers Grimm adopts the same basic style. That film failed too, but at least it knew where it was going. Hansel and Gretel can’t even muster the wherewithal to stay pointed in the right direction.