When “Hansel & Gretel” were Ass kicking Witch Hunters

Hollywood loves to look for new angles on public domain fairy tales and intellectual properties. They’re always looking for a platform for a brand new franchise, and they either go the horror route or the action route. If one fails, they automatically revert to the other a few years later. “Cinderella” and “Snow White” have been brought to the big and small screen as pseudo-horror movies and action bonanzas, with varying degrees of success. The one fairy tale that hasn’t dodged the massive overhaul for a new generation is “Hansel and Gretel.”

The classic German fairy tale from 1812 about a brother and sister lost in the woods who become prey to a cannibalistic witch and her house made of sweets has had so many iterations. One of the best, though, was the 2013 horror action film entitled “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.”

Rather than rethinking the fairy tale, though, the film from Tommy Wirkola (of “Dead Snow” fame) views the pair years after surviving their confrontation with the witch. They’re now two very sleek hunters with a lust for vengeance, and they’re committed to hunting down and murdering numerous covens of witches that prey on the weak and weak alike. Although “Witch Hunters” was greeted with a giant thumbs down from critics and audiences, I’ve loved it since it premiered and found that it packs some immense cult value.

Sure the rethinking of the classic fairy tale is great, but the way director Wirkola consistently channels Sam Raimi is masterful, and so much fun. On the downside it does attempt to set up a movie series wherein Hansel and Gretel spend much of their lives running around the world fighting witches. On the bright side, the idea is a good one that could have delved deeper in to the mythology of witchcraft and the whole code of white and black witches.

In an era where studios sought to compete with Marvel and Disney by creating their own established cinematic universes, it’s been an endless parade of public domain characters being re-invented for the hopes that they’d click with modern audiences. So everyone from “Robin Hood,” and “Tarzan,” to “Frankenstein” and even “Dracula” were turned in to sullen heroes with their own grand quests to fulfill in eight movies or more. Thankfully “Hansel & Gretel Witch Hunters” is the least insufferable of the aforementioned, and has a good time with the premise, mixing together classic steampunk, action, and the great chemistry between its stars.

It set the foundation for a universe I was hoping to see so much more of down the line. Wirkola takes every chance to rethink the whole original German fairy tale, explaining everything from the pair being abandoned by their father, their confrontation with the witch and the fall out from the fateful meeting.

An interesting character trait has Hansel being stricken with diabetes after being forced to eat the candy from the wicked witch. This often stands in his way during combat, as he’s forced to contend with its ill effects and having to constantly inject himself with insulin. Meanwhile as women are being drowned in efforts to claim them as witches, vindictive witch Muriel is working against the pair to gather all of the witches across Europe to kidnap and sacrifice twelve children. This, during a ceremony, will allow them to become immune to their worst enemy: Fire.

Hansel and Gretel are hired to track down the witches before they complete the ceremony, and ultimately they learn the reasons behind why their father abandoned them and what big secrets about their childhood ultimately come to the surface. Everyone seems to be having a great time during the film from Spectral Motion to the pair of stars; this also includes Famke Janssen who is great as the devious conniving witch Muriel. She plays the character like a champ, and often times looks like a deadite that wandered in to another movie universe.

Renner, to his credit, seems to even channel Ashley Williams every now and then with his sharp one liners and reactions to his enemies. His battle with a dagger wielding witch feels like something ripped out of “Army of Darkness.” There’s also sidekick Ben, played by Thomas Mann who offers exposition and an interesting proxy for the audiences, while the iconic Derek Mears is great as fearsome troll Edward.

Used as a strong man for the witches, we eventually learn that he has a heart of gold and inevitably joins the team in their quest. Arterton is also a wicked combo of sex appeal, pure strength, and a ferocity that allows her to get beaten by a group of men and still spit in their faces. “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” landed with a big thud, and with Jeremy Renner’s duties to the MCU as Hawkeye in “The Avengers,” it seemed slim he’d commit to the series, even if it took off. Sadly, we’re left with the first chapter of what could have been a stellar horror steam punk action series mired heavily in folklore and fairy tales. Maybe they’d eventually cross the Baba Yaga, or Lilith, or maybe even Grimhildr.

Wirkola and co. just get it right when it comes to rethinking what is already a pretty gruesome fairytale about cannibalism and witches. It deserves admiration as a pretty rad cult gem. It’s managed to definitely appreciate in value since 2013. I’d much rather get a sequel than yet another “King Arthur” or “Peter Pan” ordeal.