The issue that crippled Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters (besides, of course, a January 25th release date that reeked of dumping-ground swill.  The movie is much better than “swill,” mind you, but the After-Oscar Dumping Season makes everything appear worse than it really is) was one of tone.  The advertising and press materials couldn’t agree on a consistent marketing narrative, meaning that, no matter how you look at it, your first impression of the film will be wrong.

Case in point: maybe you saw the previews first.  The trailers sold this as a revisionist fairy tale steeped in action and gore.  You’ve got slo-mo weaponry firing, you’ve got Hawkeye himself playing Hansel (a po-faced Jeremy Renner), you’ve got a violent horror ride…right?

Wrong.  While the picture certainly earns its R-rating (the MPAA dinged it for “strong fantasy horror violence and gore”), it’s about as intense as one of those Can-O-Nuts with a spring-loaded snake.  Look past the (digitally assisted) splatter, and director Tommy Wirkola seems to be riffing on the Evil Dead series more than anything else, with Army of Darkness – the third and jokiest ED installment – a notable influence.  The film’s witches scream and swoop like Deadites before dying spastically, and Wirkola even tosses in a couple of the swoop-and-zoom camera moves that Evil Dead director Sam Raimi cut his teeth on.  Most notably, like Raimi did with Evil Dead‘s Bruce Campbell, Wirkola also takes great glee in torturing his leading man – Renner is beat to hell and humiliated nearly every step of the way.

That description makes Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters seem like a self-aware jape, a condition that the presence of executive producers Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, and Chris Henchy reinforces.  Ferrell and McKay wrote and created, among others, Anchorman, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers, and The Other Guys, the last of which they co-wrote alongside Henchy, and moments in Hansel and Gretel share their patented blend of idiosyncratic absurdity.  There’s Fargo and Armageddon star Peter Stormare playing another one of his patented grotesques (he gnashes and gobbles the scenery with aplomb), and a running gag turns sugar products into Hansel’s Kryptonite; he lapses into a diabetic coma whenever he eats them.

Here’s why that impression is wrong.  Hansel and Gretel is so festooned with blood and guts that they strangle the (overt) attempts at humor.  Horror-comedies are a delicate breed; to be sure, there are some stone-cold classics (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead 2, Shaun of the Dead), but the unsuccessful ones far outnumber the successful ones, and it’s the surfeit of action that, unfortunately, edges Hansel and Gretel into the unsuccessful realm.  Wirkola’s action chops are so pervasive and bombastic that they overwhelm the comedy, which barely registers on a first viewing.

So, to recap: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters is too goofy to be scary and too bloody to be funny.  That isn’t the best place to be, so how come I ended up enjoying the movie far more than I should have?  For all its problems, it is insanely watchable – well made, energetic, and fast-paced to boot (even the longer “unrated” version runs a tight ninety-eight minutes).  Tommy Wirkola might be riffing on Sam Raimi, but it’s an admirable theft just the same – his action scenes are crisp and easy to follow – and he gets three terrific performances from his cast.

As Gretel, Gemma Arterton makes a great, deadpan heroine.  You can tell she’s in on the joke, but since she plays everything with a stone-faced wink, she still seems credible as an ass-kicking badass.  Compare what she does to Renner’s co-lead work – he’s mostly terrible, and his stoicism seems motivated by embarrassed discomfort more than anything else.  Famke Janssen’s Big Bad, on the other hand, doesn’t have to worry about keeping a straight face; like Stormare, she’s operating at a sneering, histrionic pitch, but unlike him, Janssen looks like she’s having a ball.

Best of all is Derek Mears.  You might know Mears from 2009’s Friday the 13th reboot; he was Jason Voorhees under the hockey mask, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters finds him buried under even more makeup as Edward, a giant troll whose loyalties are torn between Janssen and Gretel.  On a purely aesthetic level, Edward is a technical marvel – the Spectral Motion animatronics that bring him to life are freakishly detailed and realistic (and to echo Badass Digest’s Hansel and Gretel review, if his makeup has received digital help, please don’t tell me).  But Mears brings so much humanity to the part, expressing all kinds of subtle emotions through what is, essentially, a prosthetics job the size of a Hummer.  Mears gives a (massive) gem of a performance, made all the more impressive through the physical limitations that threaten to constrain it.

I mentioned the unrated version earlier.  While it isn’t a game-changer like the Kingdom of Heaven or Almost Famous alternate cuts, it does represent a significant improvement over the theatrical version of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Part of the problem I had with that version were the many plot-holes; at only eighty-eight minutes, it felt like a “Good Parts” edition, truncated to the point of incoherence in order to foreground the action/horror moments – characters appeared and disappeared from the movie with little rhyme or reason (Thomas Mann’s eager sidekick is the most notable example of this), and major story beats came off as rushed and underdeveloped (I’ll give a Kewpie Doll to anyone who can clarify the details surrounding Gretel’s lineage in the theatrical cut).  This unrated edition restores many of those confusing elisions, and though none of the material is revelatory, it makes sense and improves the film’s narrative momentum and pitch.

Paramount’s Blu-ray 3D/Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack generally looks pretty great.  The 2D Blu-ray offers a near flawless picture, free of the digital effects and black crush that could impact a visually dark feature such as this one.  The 3D option isn’t quite as good – part of that is because only half of the film was actually shot in 3D while the rest was post-converted, and the difference between the two halves is obvious – yet despite some slight aliasing and ghosting, the majority of the image is clean and sharp, with good detail and brightness in the more visually extreme moments.  Both versions benefit from appropriately bombastic 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio tracks.

As for bonus materials, we get three good ones: the surprisingly detailed behind-the-scenes featurettes “Reinventing Hansel & Gretel,” “The Witching Hours,” and “Meet Edward the Troll.”

The 2D and 3D Blu-ray iterations of Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters street on June 11th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.

Culture Movie Review: HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS Is Enjoyable, If Uneven