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{Movie Review} Gretel and Hansel

The witch intended to close the oven door once Gretel had climbed inside, for the witch wanted to bake her and eat her too. But Gretel sensed what she had in mind and said, “I don’t know how to do it. How do I get in?” […] Then Gretel gave her a push that sent her flying inside and shut the iron door and bolted it.

Hansel and Gretel.57-58

Dark reinterpretations of fairy tales have been popular for some time now and honestly, the novelty has worn off. It’s difficult not to view the entire sub-genre as something akin to a teenager telling their younger sibling, “You know, in the original ending the princess dies, right?”At this point, the sentiment is neither original nor particularly insightful. That was the mindset I had going into Gretel and Hansel, a horror film reimagining of the Grim’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. Though I wouldn’t say that my feelings were justified by the film’s end, I wouldn’t say Gretel and Hansel completely succeeds either.

One of the things that is most apparent about Gretel and Hansel is what it changes in adapting Hansel and Gretel. Iconic elements from the fairy tale such as the trail of breadcrumbs and the house-made from sweets are completely omitted. The biggest changes though aren’t in what’s taken away but what’s added.As the title alludes to, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) is the main character as opposed to her brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey). In the original story, as told by the Brothers Grimm, Hansel is the much more active sibling. Hansel lays down the trail of breadcrumbs and is constantly reassuring Gretel, who spends a good portion of the story crying.In Gretel and Hansel the roles are reversed. Gretel is significantly older than her brother and her need to protect him drives much of the plot.

While I didn’t care much for Hansel as a character, Gretel’s protective nature was endearing enough to pull me through much of the plot.Also compelling was the film’s antagonist, Holda the witch (Alice Krige). Despite an added backstory and more complex motivations, Holda remains as deliciously evil as her fairytale counterpart. Krige gives a layered performance that ranges from sickening sweetness to sadistic glee. Whatever my problems with the rest of the film, Krige’s performance was a highlight.

Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures [United States]

Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the other performers. Sophia Lillis is a fine actress but her performance as Gretel felt distant to me. I mentioned earlier that she is protective over Hansel, and that’s true, but you wouldn’t know it from Lillis’ performance. The rest of the cast is similarly off. The best I can say about Sam Leakey is that his performance is inoffensive. Hansel seems to intentionally be an annoying character so any problem I had was more with the writing than Leakey as an actor.I found the writing weak generally.

The film opens with a narrator telling the legend of an evil girl brought back from the brink of death by an enchantress. This legend and its connection to Gretel is set up as a mystery and its resolution is treated as some grand revelation, but the only response it elicited from me was a shrug. The legend just isn’t that interesting. It’s important to the larger story but I found its thematic connection lacking. None of this would be much of a problem if this wasn’t such an integral part of the story. The legend just isn’t as deep as Gretel and Hansel wants it to be.That’s a good summary of the writing, not as deep as it wants to be.

Photo Courtesy of Orion Pictures [United States]

Themes of sexism and what witches say about a woman’s place in medieval Europe are touched upon but end up muddy and unclear. I can tell that the movie Gretel and Hansel most wants to be like is 2015’s The Witch. Unfortunately, Gretel and Hansel is too bogged down by its backstory and lore to be anywhere near as thematically coherent as The Witch. I think the story of Gretel and Hansel might have worked better as a book. The vague setting and time-period are less notable in prose than in a movie and Gretel’s inner monologue would be less out of place in a book than in a film.

With all these negatives, it says something that I still liked Gretel and Hansel quite a bit. What saved the film for me, in the end, was its visual storytelling. The acting is okay, the writing falters, but the direction is gorgeous. Every shot is dripping with atmosphere. Simple shapes and moody lighting are used to make Gretel and Hansel dream-like. I could tell exactly how the characters felt in any given scene by the direction. The visual storytelling in Gretel and Hansel alone is enough to warrant the price of admission. Gretel and Hansel ends up being better than most other dark reinterpretations of fairy tales, but more despite its story than because of it.

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