The fairy-tale brother-and-sister pair who barely escaped that gingerbread house with their lives has grown up and is kicking some serious witch butt in “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.” But that’s the only remotely serious thing in the silly, bombastic action extravaganza directed by Tommy Wirkola, whose previous picture “Dead Snow” was a slashed movie about a bunch of students stalked by Nazi zombies and is here working from a script he’s based on a premise not much more intelligent. It is, however, less brutal and bloody than “Snow”—and thus aimed at the adolescent trade.
It’s highly doubtful, however, that even the thirteen-year old boys who rejected previous attempts to turn old Grimm Brothers fables into twenty-first century adventures, like “Snow White and the Huntsman” or “Red Riding Hood,” will embrace such a goofy grab bag of computer-manipulated stunts, endless fights, creature effects and supposedly cheeky but definitely lame dialogue, especially as limply directed by Wirkola. Compared to the visual virtuosity and brash panache that Timur Bekmembetov brought to “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” his work comes across as pedestrian.
As to plot, there isn’t much. After a prologue recounting the old story in ten minutes or so, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) are re-introduced as twenty-something witch hunters boating lots of weapons and wearing duds that look like they might have been retrieved from the “Underworld” wardrobe department. They come to Augsburg, where a bunch of kids have been abducted, and after saving Mina (Pihla Viitala) from execution by the evil sheriff (Peter Stormare), they’re off to find out what’s afoot, assisted along the way by sweet-tempered lad Ben (Thomas Mann), who as quickly develops a crush on Gretel as Mina does on Hansel.
It turns out that the chief witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen) has abducted the children for use in a ritual, to be held on the night of the Blood Moon, that will also involve Gretel’s heart and result in her gaining some enormous power, though its nature isn’t entirely clear, at least not to this viewer. After what seems like an endless succession of battles between H&G and Muriel and her band of followers, everything winds up at a Witches’ Sabbath at which Hansel, Mina, Ben and a troll named Edward (Derek Mears, looking like a sallow version of Hellboy), wind up trying to rescue Gretel and the abducted children from Muriel and her band, using guns blessed with magic charms that blow the evil spawn of Satan to bits. It happens that Muriel’s plot is also connected with what happened to Hansel and Gretel’s parents (Thomas Scharff and Kathrin Kuehnel) many years before.
The movie is drearily repetitive, consisting mostly of battles in which the titular duo get tossed about by witches that they’re trying to capture before blowing them up somehow. Occasionally they get beaten up by the wicked sheriff too, though he meets with the obligatory gory fate as a result. There are, of course, periodic quieter interruptions in the action, especially involving Mina (who actually goes skinny-dipping with an injured Hansel) and Ben (who moons over the unconscious Gretel at one point). But the attempts at romance are half-hearted, and those that are meant to be humorous are even worse, mostly involving the inappropriate use of modern obscenities.
Perhaps things would have gone better were Renner less of a stolid stiff and if Arterton possessed any personality. As is it, however, they’re a dull pair. Mann has a boyish charm and Viitala is attractive, but they’re lost in the shuffle, and Janssen makes an unimpressive villainess, even when encased in gruesome makeup. She and her minions aren’t really much scarier than the trio of witches led by Bette Midler in the Disney bomb “Hocus Pocus,” which was of course a children’s comedy. The effects are frankly mediocre, with an overabundance of those tired “in your face” 3D moments, and the score by Atli Orvarsson (with an odd “supervisor” credit for Hans Zimmer, whatever that means) is loud and thoroughly forgettable.
It’s time this sub-genre of action fairy-tales was retired. It’s a hopeless cause, and filmmakers should just admit that and move on. As for the ending of “Hansel and Gretel,” which seems to suggest that the makers actually believe that it might become a franchise, one can only say that a sequel seems about as likely as “John Carter 2.”