'Hansel & Gretel' mixes horror, humor

Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Jeremy Renner in "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters."
February 3, 2013

When watching the opening credits of “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” two names flashed upon the screen that completely surprised me and actually altered my expectations of what was to follow.

“Produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.” Wait, what? The same two guys behind “Anchorman,” “The Other Guys,” “Talladega Nights,” and “Eastbound & Down” are behind what I thought was a blood-soaked supernatural action thriller? Talk about Funny or Die!

As this list of credentials reveals, “Hansel’s” roots may have been Grimm, but it certainly had comedic life traveling through its veins. For me, this took a lot of the pressure off the picture and actually made this curious hybrid of horror and humor much more engaging to witness.

It signaled that it was not going to be another stone-faced genre mash-up like the cinematic misfire that was “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” And clocking in at under 90 minutes, it was not destined to overstay its welcome like the bloated CGI orgy known as “Van Helsing.”

This is not to say that this next-generation Grimm tale is revolutionary by any stretch, but it’s far superior to the recent slate of reimagined fairy tales such as “Red Riding Hood,” “Snow White & The Huntsman” and “Mirror Mirror.”

Writer-director Tommy Wirkola ("Dead Snow") checks in on the candy-loving siblings 20-some-odd years later. Having flame-broiled a witch in their youth has apparently sparked a bloodlust in the two, who have spent much of their formative years traveling around the medieval forests mowing down hissing, shrieking villainesses in ways the cast of “The Expendables” would envy. Hansel (played by Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (played by Gemma Arterton) arrive in the town of Augsburg after a string of child-snatchings has significantly reduced its population.

Stirring the genres of action, horror and comedy into a singular cinematic cauldron is no easy task, and while Wirkola is perhaps a few ingredients shy, he’s not afraid to improvise. The film can be tonally messy as it struggles to balance all its wild weirdness, but there’s also a throwback quality in its go-for-broke spirit, reminiscent of early Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead”) or Peter Jackson (“Dead Alive”). The decision to make the film earn its R rating was a smart one, and is the reason perhaps some of the aforementioned films failed epically.

Renner plays it straight (for the better) and seems to be much more at home here than he was trying to take the reins of the “Bourne” franchise last summer. Famke Janssen also has fun hamming it up as the head witch. Arterton, though, is the real standout. Her angelic features hide her UFC-champion athleticism, and she demonstrates in more than one scene that she’s destined for more than what she’s given here.

By the end, it’s easy to see the appeal McKay and Ferrell saw in this flick. And while envisioning a film in which they had more involvement tickles the brain (Ferrell as Hansel and John C. Reilly as one butt-ugly Gretel?), as it stands it has the right balance of “yuks” and “yucks!”

Unpretentious, bloody and messy, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is a guilty pleasure in the truest sense of the word and is a sweet, candy-coated treat in the midwinter box office.

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