January 31, 2013 | 4:00am
Steven Spielberg and his jaunty little apologue about the 16th President of the United States aside, it's no longer enough in movies for an historical figure or literary character to do simple stuff like abolish slavery or find a man of intelligence and character. Abraham Lincoln is reduced to slaying vampires. Elizabeth Bennet is stuck fighting off zombies. And Hansel and Gretel, having already suffered the indignity of being abandoned in the woods by lousy parents, can't just kill off one cannibalistic witch and call it a day: In Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, they've grown up to become bounty hunters who must roam the land, kicking gnarly witch butt.
Actually, according to this assertively revisionist reading of the Brothers Grimm, young Hansel and Gretel were led into the woods by their parents for a very good reason, having to do with the naked ambition of a very bad witch, Muriel (Famke Janssen). As it turns out, the grown versions of Hansel and Gretel, now celebrity witch hunters—they're played by Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner—have been brought to a small village to find the crone who's been snatching the local children, and damned if it isn't Muriel herself, accompanied by a whole coven of evildoing uglies in makeup left over from The Devil's Rain.
The point, maybe, is that we're supposed to take great pleasure in watching these nasty old gals being fried to death or blown to smithereens with a medieval Gatling gun. But there's actually no pleasure at all to be had in this Hansel & Gretel, which was directed by Tommy Wirkola, whose previous credits include the 2009 Nazi-zombie horror comedy Dead Snow. (He also wrote the script.) The violence here is cartoonishly bloody without being exhilarating. The plot is as misshapen as a mutant gingerbread boy. And, at least as it was shown at the multiplex where I saw it, the picture has a dank, murky look, as if it had been left under a pile of mulch to marinate for a decade or two.
If you're thinking of experiencing Hansel & Gretel as it was made to be seen, with special glasses that will set you back a couple of extra bucks, you might want to reconsider: The movie's laff-riot gross-outs aren't particularly enhanced by 3D. (When you've seen one guy vomiting half-digested meat and maggots, you've seen them all.) And for a horror-comedy, Hansel & Gretel is curiously humorless. In the single touch approaching cleverness, the faces of the missing kinder, rendered in old-timey engravings that resemble the original promotional art for Les Mis, are lashed with twine to glass milk bottles. But the gag hits 10 minutes into the movie; after that, there's nothing to look forward to.
Still, there is a truly intriguing mystery here: What on Earth are Renner and Arterton doing in this godforsaken thing? Arterton is a reasonably appealing presence who's been toiling away in features like the revived St. Trinian's franchise, in addition to playing sword-and-sandal babes in pictures like Clash of the Titans and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. She has haunches of steel and the kind of raspberries-and-cream complexion you might see in a George Romney painting. Surely, someone can think of a better use for her than being knocked around, pretty savagely, by a crooked town sheriff? (He's played by Peter Stormare, whose Brobdingnagian overacting at least suits the brutish scale of the picture around him.)
Renner's presence here is even more mystifying. Wirkola and Harper haven't really given him a character to play. Hansel is mostly just a collection of cute tics—he's neurotic and a diabetic, to boot (the result of being force-fed candy as a child at the hands of that first witch). But unlike his sister, he at least gets a love interest in the form of a fetching strawberry-blond white witch, played by Pihla Viitala.
Renner trundles through Hansel & Gretel looking glum and constipated, as if he were just praying for the whole thing to be over quickly. At this point, he may be wishing he could get another role like the one Kathryn Bigelow gave him in The Hurt Locker, as a hotdogging Iraq War explosives expert. Renner has a tough little mug, like a modern Dead End Kid, and Bigelow knew just how to use him: He was terrific as a perpetually angry Lost Boy. Here, he's just lost, and there's no trail of breadcrumbs to save him. The Brothers Grimm may have come up with some cruel, weird material in their day, but they'd never condone actor abuse like this.