Mail & Guardian

Non-serious movie of the week: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

22 Feb 2013 00:00 | Shaun de Waal

Jeremy Renner, as Hansel, takes on a two-part witch in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Jeremy Renner, as Hansel, takes on a two-part witch in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

As so often with the titles of movies, there are punctuational problems with Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Despite what appears on the screen, we write “and” instead of an ampersand, because that is Mail & Guardian style, which I believe to be correct: if we imitated the typographic and/or design quirks of every title, reviews such as this would look as if they were written by one of Ian M Banks’s fearsum endjinns.

We place a colon after Hansel and Gretel because the last two words, Witch Hunters, are clearly subordinate, even as presented on-screen. They form a subtitle. Had they been placed after a comma, it would indicate that this is no vocation but simply a lifestyle choice — Hansel and Gretel, Witch Hunters, as in Goldilocks, Bear Wrestler.

Let us not get into the matter of whether “witch hunters” should have a hyphen in it, because I seem unable to explain even to this newspaper’s encyclopaedic proofreader why nouns followed by verb forms, upon which the verb forms act, should take a hyphen. I have tried to illustrate the notion by use of the contrast between “gay-basher” and “gay basher”, but I am told that only when actual ambiguity looms will a hyphen be employed to, as it were, separate the one meaning from the other. (Sorry, I just split that infinitive.)

“Witch hunters” is (are?) two words here because that is how the Internet Movie Data Base gives it or them, and to film fans IMDB is as infallible as the pope is to Catholics. Actually, on screen, “Witchhunters” is one word, as far as I recall, so it has the same problem as “filmmakers”. How odd it is that words in this condition, that is noun plus verb form (or verbform), can go from two words to one word just like that, without even the decent interval of taking a hyphen for the appropriate length of time.

Speaking of time, the credits of Hansel and Gretel cover about 20 years. In the prologue we have a retelling of the famous fairytale or fairy tale, in which the children are abandoned in the forest, then find a gingerbread house that seems to offer shelter, except it’s occupied by a witch who wants to eat them. A certain amount of sweating and panting later, and it is very hot in there because there’s a fire on, Hansel and Gretel overcome the witch and burn her.


The siblings are now witchhunters or witch-hunters, presumably on a professional basis. Certainly they take money for the job, and it seems they are well paid or well-paid. They have just arrived at a little hamlet in the Middle Ages, which is suffering a plague of child abduction or, in fact, child-abduction.

The local witches are planning something big. Hansie and Gretie will have to wind up their steampunk weapons and hoof it into the dark wood to murder them some witch ass. For this, rather fetchingly, is a world in which the medieval and the modern have somehow become enmeshed. It’s not quite right to say the movie is steampunk, generically speaking, because it plays that game a little differently, but this temporal ambiguity makes a good imaginative template as far as weapons and so forth are concerned, enriching the visual possibilities.

We are not told where or how Hans and Gret got their extraordinary fighting skills. Perhaps it’s clear enough that they got them from martial-arts movies, superhero comics and video games, but it might have been nice to have a little flashback or flash-back where they get a quick montage of fighting lessons from some guru like Obi Wan Kenobi or the old guy in The Karate Kid. I’m seeing Donald Sutherland in a dark cape ... No? Would Morgan Freeman do it for you?

What does get flashbacked for us, in the course of Hansel and Gretel, is the backstory of why the siblings got left in the forest in the first place, back then before the credits, to be so very nearly witch-eaten or perhaps witcheaten. This is important because no character of any kind whatsoever in any mainstream American movie is allowed to get away with not having a series of flashbacks that allude to and then explain the key childhood trauma that, essentially, defines the character. Hansel and Gretel even shows Gretel, in time-honoured storytelling style, waking with a start from a particularly bad flashback.

If any of the foregoing or fore-going puts you off seeing H&G: WH, be reminded that it is preposterous fantasy entertainment for people too young to care about hyphens. That said, it is a very well-made or indeed well made example of the genre of preposterous fantasy entertainment for people too young to care about hyphens. The leads are good-looking, the script is amusing, the plot is swift, the production design is ingenious, and it’s all over in no time.

View the original online publication here