It’s slim pickings for movies being released into the January doldrums, so either stay home or play catch-up with some of 2012’s best contenders. Then again, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is better than it has any right of being, especially if you just shut your brain off. In 88 minutes, which fly by in the blink of an eye, this giddily bloody, fairly entertaining, but wholly disposable action horror-fantasy plays out exactly how it sounds, which isn’t entirely a bad thing. A contempo twist on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Norwegian writer-director Tommy Wirkola’s first studio feature (after his 2009 Nazi-zombie lark “Dead Snow”) enthusiastically spews enough buckets of splatter and sparks enough cheeky humor to spike our sugar.
The film’s prologue might be the most vivid, mouth-wateringly designed re-imagining of the classic fairy tale we all know. Of course, this is where Hansel and Gretel were left in the woods by their father, stumbled upon a cottage made of yummy candy that housed an Orc-looking witch who wanted to eat them up, but the kids outsmarted the mean old hag, shoving her into the oven and baking her alive like an overdone gingerbread cookie. “Many years later,” the titular orphaned siblings, played by Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, have grown into witch-hunting heroes. In the German town of Augsburg, children are being captured (twelve, to be precise) by a coven of broom-flying witches, and Hansel and Gretel find themselves in the cross hairs of grand witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who’s preparing for the ritualistic Feast of the Blood Moon. Can the witch-slaying pros put a stop to the ceremony? And, more importantly, what is the secret carrot dangling in front of us that will lay out a trail of bread crumbs to why Hansel and Gretel were left by their parents and are immune to witch magic?
Peppered with anachronistic uses of the F-word and unabashed with its R-rating, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” has no pretensions that it’s anything more than the likably junky eye-candy it is. On the surface, it shares similarities with 2004’s bloated, CG-overloaded “Van Helsing” and 2005’s great-looking but overcooked “Brothers Grimm,” but unlike those duds, this one has a goofy, unflagging energy about it. Wirkola and Dante Harper’s relentlessly uncomplicated screenplay holds a few semi-clever details, too, like how Hansel must routinely inject himself with insulin for the “sugar sickness” he’s suffered since his very first witch forced him to eat candy, and one side character referencing “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” in a cute throwaway line. And on the tech side of things, effects rarely look like hollow CGI and the action sequences are tightly edited without looking like they were put through a shredder. From the hunting of witches with crossbows and other such toys, to bodies being shredded by wire traps and blown up by a Gatling gun, to the climactic sabbath looking like a Comic-Con for hags (including agile conjoined twins) and Muriel’s crowd-pleasing comeuppance, the film is just a fun ride while it lasts.
Playing the fabled sibs, the handsome Renner and the fetching Arterton do what’s asked of them, making a no-nonsense, albeit good-humored, pair between their ass-whooping skills and abilities to crack a salty one-liner (“Whatever you do, don’t eat the fucking candy!”). As the grand witch Muriel, Janssen vamps wickedly and becomes pretty fearsome with the help of her ghastly, cracked-porcelain prosthetic makeup. Thomas Mann, as Hansel and Gretel’s biggest fan, and Pihla Viitala, as a young townswoman accused of witchcraft and attracted to Hansel, merely serve as adequate sidekicks. There’s also a witch-helping troll named Edward (Derek Mears and voiced by Robin Atkin Downes), looking like a lovable cross between Frankenstein and the Jim Henson-made dwarf Hoggle from 1986’s “Labyrinth.”
When it’s all over, the final product does feel a bit stifled like a missed opportunity that hedges its bets (but perhaps it’s a case of studio interference). Even if it doesn’t waste any time, it never fully commits to a tongue-in-cheek, “Evil Dead”-esque approach and does feel like the script was sanded down from a wittier, more inventive draft to appeal to the action-starved masses. That would explain a few convenient character run-ins/rescues that just seem to manifest so we can get to the fight. But based on what can be seen, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” never stalls long enough to get repetitive and appreciably takes itself as seriously as its campy, straight-up title. Will it evaporate from your memory as soon as you’re done with it? Most likely. Is it knowingly silly and over-the-top? Very much so.
88 min., rated R.
Grade: C +