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Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters – brisk and disposable (in 3-D, no less)

Jeremy Renner (left) as Hansel must fight a black witch (Famke Janssen) who doubles as a decomposing monster.

1 out of 4 stars

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters
Written by
Tommy Wirkola
Directed by
Tommy Wirkola
Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton

The fairy-tale, horror/action film, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, is part of the same genre-twisting wave that has seen Abraham Lincoln and Jane Austen fighting vampires and zombies. Its Norwegian director, Tommy Wirkola, previously made Dead Snow, about a group of medical students on a ski trip who are confronted by Nazi zombies.

The choice of witches here as the silly supernatural enemy is even more problematic than funny Nazis. Though violence-against-women activists probably have more serious concerns to deal with, there were tens of thousands of real women tortured and murdered from the 15th to 18th centuries for witchcraft, and Witch Hunters has an alarming number of females being strung up, burned, shot, decapitated and eviscerated.

On the other hand, the film can't be accused of taking itself seriously. Shot in 3-D, with lots of choppy action, a rudimentary plot, and plenty of CGI-shape-shifting, it comes in at a brisk, disposable 88 minutes.

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We begin with the Brothers Grimm story of siblings caught eating a gingerbread house. Shortly after dispatching their first witch, the kids are seen as a pair of foul-mouthed demon hunters who are called in to a backwater village to solve a missing-children problem (missing children are shown as woodcut prints attached to milk bottles). The presence of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay as producers suggests this film might have been intended, at some point in its development, as an outright comedy. (Crone Wars, perhaps?) Instead, the movie settles for showers of gore with intermittent moments of spoofiness.

Though the place they inhabit appears to share the same excremental medieval world of Monty Python's Life of Brian, Hansel and Gretel are outfitted in form-fitting leather and are provided with steampunk-style technology, including a primitive hand-cranked taser, pump-action shotguns and an unexpected Gatling gun to ply their trade. Though apparently invulnerable to witch spells, the siblings have their weak spots. Hansel (Jeremy Renner) has to take insulin injections with an oversized syringe, thanks to an early force-feeding of candy. He's also nervous around attractive women other than his sister, and has a particularly fierce anti-witch bias. "The only good witch," he insists, "is a dead witch."

His sister is slightly more tolerant, and her first act in the new town is to stop the sheriff (Peter Stormare) from killing an apparently innocent, pale redhead (Pihla Viitala). The woman, in fact, turns out to be a sexy white witch, who latches on to the nervous Hansel and helps him partly revise his opinion on witches. Gretel has her own burdens to bear: an adoring teen fan (Thomas Mann); and, later, a massive-headed troll named Edward (Derek Mears). Both appear spellbound by her cleavage.

Eventually, Hansel and Gretel find themselves in a showdown with a powerful black witch (Famke Janssen) who can flip instantly into being a diva-ish know-it-all in a slinky black dress, and then a partially decomposed monster with green veins on her face.

Other witches in her coven show variations on a goth-punk-raver vibe, suggesting a more progressive fashion sense than the dun-covered clothes of the villagers. Their progressive ideas, alas, are soon buried, by the sibling vigilantes, in the ash dump of history.

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