The story behind the most god-awful Hollywood film of the decade so far is infinitely more interesting than the story it tells. As it turns out, the blame for the lobotomized abomination that is Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters belongs not with the Brothers Grimm but with Will Ferrell, of all people.
It all started four years ago, when an unknown Norwegian Sam Raimi fan named Tommy Wirkola released a low-budget horror comedy about a group of young people attacked by Nazi zombies. Dead Snow made close to a couple million dollars internationally, but, more importantly, it made an impression on a pair of American movie powerhouses.
Together Ferrell and writer-director Adam McKay have created such comic classics as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. They collaborated for years on “Saturday Night Live,” founded the comedy video website Funny or Die and partnered on Gary Sanchez Productions, whose credits include the HBO television series “Eastbound & Down,” as well as films such as The Campaign and the upcoming sequel Anchorman: The Legend Continues.
The road to movie-going hell is paved with good intentions. And, by all accounts, Will Ferrell is a good guy. I’m sure Tommy Wirkola thought so the day he got the message that the star wanted to meet with him if he visited the States. He did soon after, and within days, the two Americans had secured financing for their new friend’s next project, apparently thinking his pitch was a hoot. Hansel and Gretel as hired killers — hey, if the guy could squeeze laughs from the Third Reich on a shoestring, imagine what kind of comedy he could make with a big-time Tinseltown budget!
Anyone who’s seen the result is still trying. Wirkola has told interviewers that Ferrell was a hands-off producer. “Tommy, go crazy,” he reportedly instructed the director. “That’s why we’re doing this movie.” Ferrell couldn’t have been more generous. What he could have been is clearer about the sort of film he expected. For example, the idea that it should be funny seems to have gotten lost in translation.
Or, for that matter, that it should be interesting. It’s not. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton embarrass themselves as butt-kicking, bounty-hunting siblings who’ve parlayed their childhood brush with evil into a lucrative gig. They travel from village to village in Bavaria, eliminating witches with the help of an anachronistic arsenal that includes a machine gun, grenades and a semi-automatic crossbow.
Wirkola’s script is just staggeringly vapid. Given a blank check and an invitation to go wild, he squanders the artistic opportunity of a lifetime on a derivative deluge of drivel. It involves our heroes racing against the clock to bring down the Great Witch (Famke Janssen) before the arrival of the Blood Moon and save a group of children currently in her evil clutches. That’s exactly as dopey as it sounds: too childish to appeal to adults and too reliant on F-bombs and gore to have been intended for kids.
How colossally did Wirkola fail? Handed a check for $50 million, he couldn’t even manage to give us witches that are fun to look at. There isn’t an iota of imagination in their makeup or in the special effects used when they do what witches do.
It’s one thing to write cretinous dialogue (the only kind Wirkola apparently can). A filmmaker reveals another level of ineptness when he proves incapable of jobbing work out to professionals with the talent to do it effectively. The director didn’t have to create the film’s effects; he only had to hire someone who could, but even that proved beyond his abilities. A mess on every conceivable front, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is unable to generate so much as a minute of movie magic.
* Running time: 88 min.
* Rated: R