Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is not a perfect movie, nor does it wish to be. Had it come out as some kind of summer tentpole picture, I'd probably find it underwhelming and way out of touch. As a piece of January genre dump, however, I think it's fun, fast and inventive enough to praise, and far from deserving of the criticisms I've seen pointed at it.
Think of Hansel & Gretel not as a big theatrical film so much as a very special Supernatural episode written by Sam Raimi. Not only do Supernatural and Hansel & Gretel both feature a gruff tough guy who battles evil forces with his little sister, but both tough guys have to relax an absolutist, black-white moral code, both properties casually come up with fun mythology takes without wasting time over explaining them, and both revel in great, gooey gore. There's nothing brutal here. Just fun dismemberment and blood splatters.
The Raimi thing is less pervasive but there all the same. There are two levels to the humor in Hansel & Gretel. One obvious surface level, which is where we get all the f-bombs and gore. But there's another level, too, the level where Hansel's a bumbling Ash/Jack Burton figure who has diabetes from his childhood candy house eating, the level where Gretel has a machine gun crossbow, the level where missing children signs are inked onto fabric squares and tied to milk cartons. Details like this inform every moment of Hansel & Gretel. I'm not 100% sure if it's a "joke" or the kind of real honest to God genre poking you see Raimi do all the time. I think it's the latter. If I'm wrong, then I admit the film takes a hit in my opinion.
But even if I'm wrong, I'll still have to love Hansel & Gretel a little for Edward the Troll. Played by Derek Mears under a ton of practical effects work (if this is CG, please don't tell me) Edward the empathetic and violently badass Troll steals this movie and raises it a few bars regardless of its other faults. Imagine a more cuddly version of the Rock Biter from The Neverending Story, and maybe you'll get some idea. Every time he's on screen in his practical effect glory (again, please don't tell me I'm wrong about this) I feel like Hansel & Gretel got away with something great.
The same can be said of the film's witches. The main ones come off as slightly generic, but there's a big witch gathering near the end that shows off a lot of impressive variations and concepts which made me wish I could pause the film for closer examination. It's not Mos Eisley or even Del Toro's Troll Market, but to discount the character design that went into this film would be a slap to the face of people who really went out of their way to come up with interesting ideas that don't rely on CG. For that alone, this is the kind of film we should be celebrating.
Hansel and Gretel themselves aren't bad, either. Like I said before, I'm pretty sure Jeremy Renner is going for the unearned cockiness of a Jack Burton figure. Gemma Arterton plays the bigger badass of the two, but neither take their roles too seriously. The film gets bogged down slightly (and I mean slightly) toward the end with bad guy exposition, but it's an easy pill to swallow since Hansel and Gretel border on farcical characters to begin with, making their origin story seem like parody by association.
I say the film seems like it could have been written by Sam Raimi because visually it has little in common with his very distinct style. Not that it's badly directed. Some of the cinematography is a bit too dark, but overall the film is shot with energy. Tommy Wirkola has a lot of funny action ideas and he wants to make sure we see them all, which translated to me seeing about 85%. Not bad, these days. I didn't watch it in 3D because I had a choice and I'm not stupid.
January is a great time for fun b-movies, and of all the fun b-movies I've seen this month so far, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters is by far my favorite. The Last Stand is probably the better overall film, but this is the one I'd rather rewatch. It's funny, gory, has boobs, and isn't even 90 minutes long. It delivers exactly what a film like this should set out to deliver. People complaining about it have misread its intentions. I mean, this is a film with a fucking wooden LP player in it.