It certainly seems as though more effort went into conceiving the basic premise for “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”—the eponymous fairytale characters grow up to professionally battle the species that nearly roasted them to death as children—than writing the screenplay itself. Not only does writer Tommy Wirkola (who also directs) employ a paper-thin plot, he reduces his clever spin on the Brothers Grimm to the generic: if not for the characters’ names and the prologue’s recreation of their famous childhood story, we’d have no idea that Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton play Hansel and Gretel and not just run-of-the-mill witch hunters.
It’s a shame that the characters are one-dimensional, because you couldn’t ask for a more charismatic action-adventure duo than Renner and Arterton, despite the silliness of the filmmakers’ decision to cast them as siblings born just a few years apart (in real life, he’s 15 years her senior). Both possess great physicality, running and shooting various weapons more credibly than other photogenic Hollywood stars, and their rapport feels natural. But outside of said running and shooting, Wirkola doesn’t give the pair anything to do. The writer/director’s idea of character development is pausing for Hansel’s daily insulin injection—the gingerbread house feast made him a diabetic—which is a clever touch but lacks any personalizing effect. Furthermore, Wirkola’s script asks the viewer to blindly accept that Hansel and Gretel seek unending revenge against witches due to their childhood experience, rather than channeling this trauma into any kind of entertaining neuroses.
Of course, impressively crafted action sequences can go a long way in forgiving slight characters, but “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” doesn’t boast these, either. Showing off little of the aesthetic flair that made his Nazi-zombie picture “Dead Snow” a cult hit, Wirkola utilizes a lot of unintelligibly short takes (we’re talking sub-split second) and cheap CGI that make the titular witch-hunting more obligatory than it is engaging. It doesn’t help that the witches don’t possess any unique powers to spice things up. If only Wirkola were as inventive in this arena as he was with a scene in which Gretel defibrillates a troll with a stun gun, one of the film’s only moments of campy, anachronistic joy.
The film’s overarching narrative—if you could call it that, given what little actually happens—involves Hansel and Gretel’s mission to rescue 11 children who the witches have kidnapped to sacrifice on the upcoming Blood Moon Sabbath. There’s a third-act twist that makes the proceedings slightly more complicated than “Hansel and Gretel and a few allies take down the witches,” but not by much. While it’s appreciable that Wirkola didn’t waste the audience’s time with a bunch of meaningless plot in an attempt to compensate for his shortcomings in the character department—the film is barely over 80 minutes, sans credits—the lack of story certainly draws attention to just how empty “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” is. It may not be among the year’s worst motion pictures because there’s nothing offensive or severely incompetent about it, but audiences won’t gain a thing by watching the movie, other than perhaps the knowledge that Renner and Arterton deserve better.