Gretel & Hansel and all the images you see in this review are owned by United Artists Releasing
Directed by Oz Perkins
Sigh… a gritty reboot of the Hansel & Gretel? Did you happened to catch that tagline; A GRIM Fairy Tale? Yeah, something tells me this isn’t going to be good, AND YET there has been a decent amount of buzz surrounding this which surprised the heck out of me! It’s not like February has a much better reputation for movies than January does, especially when it comes to horror, so if they really did have something here wouldn’t they have saved it for a better time? I don’t know, maybe studios think that Get Out being the exception to this rule means it’s the new strategic time slot for quick horror bucks. In any case, is this the surprise gem that people having been saying it is, or is this yet another chance for me to be a Grumpy Gus at a mediocre horror film? Let’s find out!!
You know the story of Hansel & Gretel? Well then you know the story of Gretel & Hansel! Two kids are kicked out of their home because medieval times sucked for the working class and they get taken in by a witch who gives them food but has a hidden agenda. Naturally there’s more to it, but it’s all about adding details than going off and doing its own thing as Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is the older sister taking care of her younger brother (Sam Leakey) and the witch (Alice Krige) is a more complicated presence in the movie. At first she appears to be benevolent if a bit cagey as she not only feeds the kids bellies but their minds as well with meaningful chores, games of chess, and even teaching the little boy how to sharpen an axe so he can live out his dream of being a woodcutter. Hey, at least it’s better than being a YouTuber or god help us a Twitch Streamer! As the two stay at the house and learn more about her as well as the history of this house, things might just be going in a sinister direction that will force them to flee for their lives or perhaps it’s all a giant misunderstanding and they will end up being the aggressors in this story against an innocent and charitable older woman. Will Gretel and Hansel become victims of a scheme that the witch is COOKING up for them? Will Gretel perhaps be tempted down a dark path by the small TASTE of magic that the witch offers to her from time to time? Do I have THYME to do OLIVE the food puns in the world before I get to the TOAST POINT!?
So are the people singing this move’s praises correct? Well… let’s just say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie I WANTED to like more than this one. It does so many things that pique my interest and appeal to my sensibilities as a moviegoer, and yet there’s something missing that keeps me from really getting behind it. It’s clearly inspired by (or at least can easily be compared to) some VERY top tier entries in the genres it dabbles in, but is it better than any of those films I could mention? Sadly, I don’t think so. Does it at least have a unique selling point or an interesting concept that gives it its own little niche apart from its inspirations? Unfortunately that’s a big swing and a miss too despite a few interesting ideas throughout. If there’s anything that DOES set it apart, it’s the PG-13 rating which is not an unimportant aspect of this since the films that spring to my mind when thinking of these tend to be in the hard R camp, and frankly it’s a bit more accessible than those films as well, but the end result is less its own unique thing within the constraints of its rating than a watered down version of movies that came before it; tempered to not go too far in terms of its visceral scares as well as its radical ideas. Perhaps that’s more than enough for most people and I still give this a lot of credit for what it does REALLY well, but it’s ultimately like the feasts we see throughout the movie; large and sumptuous, but far too many empty calories.
Before we get into the film’s shortcomings, let’s first lay the groundwork of what this movie gets right; namely the same thing that movies like The Witch, Antichrist, and even my beloathed Hereditary. All of these movies have a peerless sense of atmosphere and oppressive tension through brilliantly realized cinematography and densely layered visual metaphors. This is straight up an Arthouse Horror Film to use a rather crude description, but it does with many of the signifiers associated with it. The movie has a very naturalistic feel to its cinematography opting for up close and personal shots for the most part so that the few times it dabbles into more extravagant compositions stand out all the more; particularly the house itself which not only looks intriguing from the outside but has some interesting mysteries to uncover within it. There are bizarre moments throughout that I won’t spoil here as well as a lot of implied magical realism that sets a proper mood for the events that will unfold and you are left wondering just how much was real and what’s been imagined. I also have to give it up to Alice Krige as the witch who is absolutely BRILLIANT in the part and brings a lot of humanity to a role that could have been an utter cliché. She could have been cackling like a fiend or making even worse food puns than me all throughout, but there is genuine warmth, wit, and candor within her that makes it all the more regrettable that things eventually go where they inevitably have to.
It does such a good job with creating its world and setting up some thought provoking themes through the main antagonist that it’s heartbreaking how it ultimately doesn’t come together, and that’s where we get into the big problem with the movie. Despite all the pieces being in place, it doesn’t end up painting a fully cohesive picture which does nothing to ward off accusations of being pretentious. Now I wouldn’t necessarily use that word to describe this film as it often evokes a sense of cynicism to the haphazard use of muddled symbolism and metaphor, but I don’t feel that’s the case here; rather, it comes off as uncertainty on the filmmaker’s part and perhaps a bit of inexperience. Despite the ambitious nature of the filmmaking, it feels weightless for most of its running time; particularly in the extended first act which is all over the place and spends way too much time watching our characters mosey around a forest occasionally seeing something strange or blowing up at one another. It gets better once they get to the witches house and we have Alice Krige’s performance to hold everything together, but even then there are still some awkward aspects that stick out like a sore thumb and wound the otherwise amazing atmosphere; these issues primarily the acting from Hansel and the tacked on voice overs from Gretel. I’m not sure why Hansel had to be as young as he is in this movie other than to make him seem THAT much more innocent as a character, but they didn’t cast the role well as far as I’m concerned. The actor comes off as almost completely unaware of what he’s supposed to be doing other than reading his rather banal lines and it’s distracting how everything else feels so polished and deliberate while he seems to have been left to his own devices. That’s at least tolerable though, where as the voice overs are utterly laughable and break the flow of the movie whenever they come up. They come off as a total afterthought and I suspect it was added to the movie to make the narrative easier to follow. I’m guessing test audiences were confused about which scenes were dreams and which were real so they had Gretel narrate her thoughts after most of the more peculiar scenes, and I’ll grant them that at least ONE of the voice overs was helpful in understanding Gretel’s state of mind as well as the context of the prior scene, but they’re purely functional and don’t integrated well with the more ethereal tone the rest of the movie sets.
The other issue is perhaps less overt and won’t bother most people, but what really sinks the narrative for me is that it has “THE WITCH PROBLEM” that a lot of modern stories run into. Sadly I am far from an expert on this subject so I’ll defer to the more knowledgeable folks out there, but modern day understands of The Witch Hunts throughout Europe and the US have revealed their motives to be less about religious zealotry than about institutionalized oppression of women during those periods of time. Again, specifics are for those who ACTUALLY know what they’re talking about, but for our purposes witches have become something of a symbol in popular fiction for targets of patriarchal oppression and in turn have become more nuanced and even heroic figures in certain contexts. They also make good villains however, what with all the power they wield and the terrifying stories that have been embedded in popular culture, so sometimes they try to thread the needle between empowerment and terror. The Craft is a fantastic example of this where the first half is about the coven’s struggles as women in modern day society and the unfair challenges they have to face but the transition between them being empowered by their magic to being corrupted by it feels a bit forced as we head into the second half of the movie; seeing right before our eyes the difficulty of squaring these two interpretations of witches. Are you with me so far? Okay, good! This is basically the problem with the story in this movie only it’s made worse by the less the unreliable nature of what we are seeing. Because so much of this movie could be dreams, imaginations, or symbolic flourishes, it’s difficult to get an exact bead on what the movie wants to you to feel about certain things and about its characters. Gretel’s big character arc seems to be about getting over her pessimistic attitude about the world, but does that actually happen by the end of the movie? Is witchcraft an unfairly maligned tool that can fight against the oppressors of the world, or are we right to fear them given what we see this witch do in the movie? It SEEMS to imply there’s a GOOD way to be a witch, but I’ll be darned if the movie cares to explain what that entails! These lingering questions in a movie that seems to want to be taken so serious (there’s almost no levity throughout the runtime) is what really dampened my enthusiasm, but then maybe there’s more to this than what I’m seeing and someone will be able to find true depth between the words on the page even if I just felt kind of numb through a not insignificant amount of it.
You know what? It FINALLY dawned on me what this movie is! Does anyone else remember that odd Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt movie Parents? Yeah, it was an interesting little horror film about a kid who suspects his parents are actually serving him human flesh at dinner which is not only similar in narrative sense but approaches it with a similarly ethereal and non-literal style. Most importantly though it was ANOTHER movie that I wish I liked more than I did, but I still do recommend checking that movie out for some of its more inventive moments and I’ll say the same about this movie here. No, I don’t think it’s as great as it SHOULD have been and despite its valiant effort to swing for the fences it does strike out in a few places, but considering it’s a February horror film that sounds about one step above that Red Riding Hood movie that was a Twilight knock-off? Yeah, I think we lucked out with this one! Oh who am I kidding? I LOVE that Red Riding Hood movie! Amanda Seyfried being chased by a wolf, that giant cremation elephant thing, what more could you ask for? See, that’s where this movie messed up! No giant cremation elephant thing!