Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is a genial riff on the old German fairy tale. The movie nods in the direction of the well-known story—the evil crone, the gingerbread cottage, the oven-bound siblings—but it's essentially a big 3D action film, packed with fights and chases and jokey anachronisms. It's not awful—certainly not as stupid as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or the even more definitively brain-dead Red Riding Hood of two years back. But those are very low bars to clear.
The picture's conceit is that Hansel and Gretel, having survived their childhood encounter with the kiddie-baking cottage witch, have grown up to become a semi-sullen Jeremy Renner and foxy Gemma Arterton. They're now freelance witch-hunters, outfitted in stylish black leathers and armed with formidable steampunk weaponry. (Gretel's complicated crossbow can fire in two lateral directions at once; Hansel's huge scattergun could blow a hole in the moon.) For reasons they don't understand (a key plot point), they're immune to witchy spells and curses. This makes their job a little easier, and it's not brain surgery to begin with. "If you're gonna kill a witch," Hansel says, "set her ass on fire."
Hansel and his sister have been hired to scour a village of the witches who've been abducting its children. The village is a familiar sort of pop-medieval settlement—a little murk, a little mud, some picturesque half-timbered homes. The sheriff (Peter Stormare in trademark thespian overdrive) resents the interlopers trespassing on his turf; but Hansel and Gretel's renown has preceded them, and they're soon being importuned for autographs by a groupie named Ben (Thomas Mann), who becomes their witch-afflicting protégé. Fortunately for the movie, which is otherwise low in romantic spark, there's also a love interest on hand—a cute redhead named Mina (Finnish actress Pihla Viitala), who takes an instant shine to Hansel.
Crackly-faced witches begin to swarm early on, swooping through the night on their turbo-powered brooms. Before long, we meet a humongous troll named Edward, a misunderstood behemoth who's introduced to us chewing on a bloody boar head. This lonely brute suggests a potential to become Gretel's love interest, and if this were a really adventurous movie, he would. (But it's not, and he doesn't.) Then there's some business about a "Blood Moon"—a witches' Sabbath that's only three nights away. And we learn that the root of the local kid-snatching plague is an über-witch named Muriel (Famke Janssen), whose powerful spells can, among other things, drive men to eat worms. (This is fun to watch, but seems dubious in terms of evil utility.) Muriel has also developed a potion that can render witches fireproof, which is considerably more worrisome.
Norwegian director Tommy Wirkola, who previously concocted the amusing Nazi-zombie film Dead Snow, appears to be having fun with the movie's many frank inanities. There are full-on Gatling guns and hand-cranked defibrillation paddles; and since Hansel was cursed with a problematic sweet tooth after his youthful run-in with the gingerbread witch, he requires regular proto-insulin shots delivered by proto-syringe. Wirkola also resists every opportunity for 3D restraint, and happily sends flesh chunks and arrows and all manner of other debris flying in our faces. It's not a subtle movie.
It is strained, however, even at a runtime of under 90 minutes. The frantic editing flattens the effect of all the witch-swatting and Hansel-bashing, and the humor doesn't build. The picture should have been either far wackier or much more scary than it is. It's a funny concept, but most of the real fun seems to have been had by the filmmakers themselves.