The title Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters sounds a lot like another tale about heroes who help keep the supernatural at bay: the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While in no way a copycat of that show, director Tommy Wirkola may have taken a few hints from Buffy creator Joss Whedon. Like Buffy, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters has an in-your-face ridiculous title, a steady flow of dryly delivered one-liners, and heroes with the fighting skills of a ninja. Films that leave no doubt that the people behind them are in on the joke are always a gamble: The joke has to be funny, after all, and a silly story is not necessarily good one.
For the most part, Wirkola succeeds on both fronts. The universe in which the story takes place is one where common fairy-tale conventions intermingle with a steampunk aesthetic, creating an atmosphere that remains visually arresting throughout the entire film. The concept of an adult Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) making a living as professional witch hunters makes more sense when put in context; after all, what fairy-tale heroes with tragic pasts don't eventually wind up fighting for the cause themselves? Renner seems the most committed to his role, easily switching back and forth between a loyal brother, a skilled fighter, and an awkward man who doesn't have the hang of talking to women. Actress Pihla Viitala is equally sure of herself as a beautiful, quietly funny woman who falls for Hansel after he rescues her from an angry mob.
The rest of the cast are decidedly more tentative, and that's where the film sags beneath the weight of its production values and pervasive self-awareness. Arterton often seems more of a damsel in distress than she does a toughened heroine, and Famke Janssen's portrayal of the evil witch Muriel is simply not scary.
This movie probably isn't going to win anybody any awards. Still, it seems a logical conclusion that most people willing to part with their hard-earned cash would be expecting something great from a film called Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. However, should they be hoping for a cheesy, funny fantasy where there is no doubt that the good guys will prevail, this picture does not disappoint.