‘Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters’ journeys into the contrived

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Once upon a time, the name Jeremy Renner was reserved for only the highest caliber of Hollywood popcorn blockbusters. After the colossal critical acclaim and mainstream acceptance he earned from “The Hurt Locker,” Renner was given an express ticket to the top tier of big budget franchises with the likes of “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” “The Avengers” and “The Bourne Legacy.” Since the release of “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters” was delayed for almost an entire year to capitalize on Renner’s rising popularity, perhaps it should have been expected that the film would be a sharp step backwards.

The story is an R-rated takeoff from the classic “Hansel and Gretel” tale, which is played out with an impressive set design and demonic creature effects in the film’s two-minute opener. We then catch up with the Grimm Brothers’ famed orphaned children several years later, now serving as supernatural mercenaries-for-hire bringing hope, firepower and sardonic eye-rolls to a world torn apart by witches.

Gemma Arterton (“Quantum of Solace,” “Clash of the Titans”) delivers a rather stoic performance as Gretel, playing the eye-candy who is at constant odds with the male dominated world around her, which is best personified by Peter Stormare’s slime ball sheriff. In contrast, Renner does the best he can with dialogue plagued by cliches, playing most things off with humor.  But even his likeable bravado struggles to find a foothold in the movie’s awkward tone, which can’t seem to decide whether or not it wants to be taken seriously. Certain elements, such as the frighteningly dark representations of the witch monsters, add chilling realism to the fantasy world. Other modern twists, including Renner’s Hansel needing regular doses of insulin from a wooden syringe to help combat the “sugar sickness” he acquired while being fed sweets from his carnivorous captor when he was a boy, border on the ridiculous.

All of the cast members have a hard time obtaining sympathy and selling the Middle-Ages time period when reciting lines from a script littered with modern curse words and inflections (Gretel, when seeing the house made of candy for a second time in her adult life, says “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me”). But director Tommy Wirkola seems to care little for believability as he employs all of the leftover fake blood from his previous schlock horror movie “Dead Snow,” whose drama is largely centered on escaping zombie-Nazis. His vivid eye and creative production design do the most for the film’s visuals, but little for the actual content.

Overall the film is largely underdeveloped, feeling less like an edgy, imaginative update of a classic story and more like “Hocus Pocus” with a half-baked Tim Burton twist.  Characters are half-heartedly hexed, burned and smashed to death before we even get to know them or their purpose as the grim plot rushes to its predictable conclusion. Plot twists feel tepid and expected while Gretel and Hansel are supposedly haunted by the memories of their parents (who are barely given thirty seconds of screen time). Emotions come off as forced and the heroes seem jaded and even resigned to being part of such a far-fetched plot.

It was a wise move on the part of Paramount Pictures to postpone “Hansel and Gretel’s” release date to better cash in on Renner’s celebrity because without a bankable cast, the only “happily ever after” for this film would be “straight to DVD.” Despite the story setting itself up for a second installment, the chances of a sequel appear low. It seems the filmmakers are still trying to find the breadcrumb trail back to a successful blockbuster franchise with this one.

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