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REVIEW: A nice walk in the woods with your dad sounds like a good enough time, right? That’s what young Hansel and his sister Gretel were probably thinking when they were brought out into the forest by their father. Of course, a few things might have tipped ’em off that this wasn’t your run of the mill family outing. First, it’s the dead of the night. Who goes for a hike in the dark? And two, he up and leaves them there, right in the middle of the woods, tells them to stay there, he’ll be back. So they stay there. And wait. But after a bit, it’s pretty clear daddy’s cut and run. So looking for a way out, they stumble upon a lovely cottage in the trees. But for a forest lodge, it’s really rather ornate and surprisingly delicious. Wait, what? Delicious? See, this ain’t no average cabin in the woods. This one’s made of gingerbread and candy.
Inside, the owner isn’t, as I initially guessed, a Keebler Elf mixing up a batch of Country Style Oatmeal and Raisin cookies, leaving the kids no choice but to toss the little bugger in the fire for continuing to bake such an abominable cookie. No, actually it’s an ugly witch (subjective, to be sure) intent on cooking and eating the children herself. Yet she discovers the two kids are a bit more resilient than expected and after a struggle, winds up seeing the inside of her oven up close and personal. Flash forward fifteen years and now the brother and sister are local heroes, having dispatched hundreds of witches with their cunning and wily ways. It also helps that they are both immune to spells and curses, a pretty handy trick when fighting witchcraft. Far removed from the fragile and tender manners of their youth, the two now are pistol packing, foul mouthed, leather clad bounty hunters, and they are very, very good at their jobs.
The two end up in a town called Augsburg, where the woodchopper guy from Fargo is now the Sheriff holding court in the town square, accusing a young, pretty redhead of witchery. He’s about to set the poor girl to flame when Hansel and Gretel show up and declare that the lovely Mina is not a witch even though “duh” she totally is and will prove that not all witches are bad by the end of the story (spoiler). Then they break the Sheriff’s nose with Gretel’s face. The Mayor announces that he has hired the gun-totting duo to help rescue the town’s children, stolen by an evil witch living in the forest. Not to be ignored, the Sheriff hires a small posse of men and sends them into the woods to hunt the witches themselves, hoping to disgrace the wonder twins. They set up camp in the night forest and immediately draw the attention of Muriel, an Evil Grand Witch with a nasty disposition. She’s none too happy there are hunters on her land trying to take back the little children she worked so hard to steal.
She kills all but one, saving him to send a message back to the town where Hansel and Gretel are waiting. That message involves him exploding in a shower of bloody guts and maggots, so while the actual interpretation is cloudy, the intent is fairly clear: Don’t muck around with Muriel. Hansel and Gretel run away and all the kids are eaten. No. Hansel and Gretel instead go to bed and sleep on it. Next morning we discover that Hansel has himself the “Sugar Sickness” because that rotten witch in the gingerbread house had forced him to eat too many treats. Now he’s gotta stick himself with some drugs every few hours or he’ll die. So diabetes and insulin but before diabetes and insulin were a thing. Meanwhile, they track a witch in the woods and capture it, interrogating it until it reveals that the witches only need one more child and a special ingredient (a white witch heart of course!) for the Blood Moon spell, which will give them immunity to fire. This is when Muriel shows up and reigns fire on the town, rescuing the imprisoned witch while handily defeating Gretel, all while another witch and a troll not only find and take the last child but fly away with an Hansel. Also, the mayor shot his own head off. So no, not a good showing for our heroes. A fan of the witch hunters, a young man named Benjamin rescues the unconscious Gretel and takes her to his attic bedroom.
Once recovered, Gretel goes out searching for her lost brother, but ends up in the hands of the nasty Sheriff and a few of his equally nasty henchmen. He’s a bit perturbed over a number of things and decides to explain his grievances with a series of punches to her face. But look! Who that in the trees nearby? Why it’s the troll who stole the little girl from town. He’s snacking on wild boar and hears the commotion in the meadow. Time for a beat down. Or rather a squishy mush down as he splats the baddies like fresh grapes. He saves Gretel though, carrying her off to a stream to clean her up. Now you might be asking why? Seems dear Gretel has a secret.
Written and directed by Tommy Wirkola and based loosely on characters from the Grimm’s fairytale, the film is a mixed potion of absurdity and outright gory fun. One might be quick to casually dismiss the movie for its silly approach but, as I came to find out, it overcomes it with sheer unblinking 110% commitment to it. It sidesteps tongue and cheek surprisingly well, taking itself very, very seriously, which works in a fun way. Jeremy Renner, as Hansel, is clearly having a blast earning his paycheck, tossing out one-liners and enjoying the kick-assiness of his role. Gemma Arterton is equaling gleeful and fits into the tight action leathers rather nicely. While it doesn’t really explore anything about abandonment, witchery or anything else too deeply, and spends a lot of time in battle and fight scenes, the witches are creative and the action is gruesomely entertaining. A fun updated fairytale.
Scene Setup: Hansel and Gretel have learned about Muriel’s plan to use children and the heart of a White Witch to create the Blood Moon potion for fire immunity. They have gone to the woods to hunt Muriel and have ended up in a run down, ramshackle home in the trees. There is something familiar about the place and soon they recognize that they are standing in the ruins of their own childhood home, a place they haven’t seen in more than fifteen years. There are some clues about the house that hint at their origins and the fate of their parents, but before they can work it out, Muriel bursts in and with a snicker, has a tale she is sure the brother and sister will want to hear.
The Scene: (Timestamp 57:00) The Evil Grand Witch welcomes them home and tells them this is the house of Adrianna, the Great White Witch, and that this Great White Witch, as it were, was a whore. That’s Muriel talking, not me. I never met her. What’s more, she is also Hansel and Gretel’s mother. Surprise! She explains that a lowly farmer fell in love with the white which and they married, having two adoring children. When the rare Blood Moon came about, the dark witches needed the heart of a grand white witch to complete the potion, but Adrianna proved too powerful, so they turned their attention to Adrianna’s daughter, Gretel. They also spread a terrible gossipy rumor about town, betraying her secret identity. The townspeople came up to the house and enjoyed a spot of tea, no, burned her at the stake. And just to be sure he’d never do it again, strung up the farmer as well. These are some highly on edge people.
But Muriel’s tale reveals something important for Hansel and Gretel. For most of their lives, the two have believed they were left in the woods, abandoned by a heartless father. In fact they made an agreement not to discuss their parents at all. But Muriel lets slip that their parent’s choice to leave them in the forest was actually not motivated by evil but by good. To prevent the dark witches from finding and killing Gretel, the parents agreed to give up the kids forever by hiding them in the deep woods. Their sacrifice of parenthood and eventually of their very lives turns the tables on what the two had always believed. Too young to understand when it happened, they spent their lives assuming the worst of their mother and father, certain they had been abandoned. This is a burden for any age. The truth proves even heavier.
Muriel tells this tale while in the gutted husk of the children’s home, igniting a small fire in the hearth as she talks, foretelling the fate of Adrianna. This same flame serves as the conduit to a flashback, and we see the farmer and his wife and the terrible deaths they receive at the hands of the angry mob. We learn not only of the true origin of the children’s power, but the true greatness of both the Grand White Witch as she chooses death in order to protect her children and the awful murder of the father, dying simply because he loved someone others misunderstood.
Right from that harrowing shot of the father blowing out his lantern and leaving his children in the woods, we knew his story was not ended. And even as children, when they prove to be immune to the powers of the dark witches, we suspect the reason must be linked to some witchery, probably by spell. But to learn that their mother was in fact the Great White Witch and how her benevolence ultimately led to her death is a surprising twist and a necessary motivation for her children’s actions.
From this moment on, Hansel and Gretel are not bounty hunters with the same agenda, killing witches for the money. Their power and skills have brought them fame and fortune already. But now it is about revenge. About redeeming the name of Adrianna and fulfilling the destiny of the white witch line. While Muriel thought she was weakening the two hunters by telling the story of their parent’s demise, she instead spurned a deeper rage, and it starts right away from Hansel, who, tired of her malicious exposition like she’s a Bond villain, tells her, “You know, you talk too much,” and just start to fight her. That’s what witch hunters do. Especially those with a brand new fire in their hearts.