Gretel and Hansel (Sophia Lillis and Sammy Leakey) live in a dark time of plagues, poverty and famine. Their father has died and their mother, unable to feed them and becoming mentally ill, sends them out to find work and food on their own. Traveling through the dark woods, they become more and more hungry, resorting to eating wild mushrooms that cause them to giggle uncontrollably and hallucinate. Eventually, they run across a house that emanates the smell of cakes, bacon and other delicious foods. Gretel sends Hansel in through a window where he finds a huge table set with a roast pig, fresh fruits, pies, breads and more. Looking through the window, Gretel sees her brother swept up by a dark figure. Trying to break through with a rock, Gretel is preparing to start a fire when the home’s owner appears. Holda (Alice Krige), holding Hansel, is an elderly woman that invites Gretel to come in. Inside the dark house, Gretel and Hansel eat to their heart’s content. Holda is a bit odd but unthreatening. She tells the pair they are welcome to stay as long as they wish. Hansel thinks the pair have hit the jackpot, but Gretel is unsure. She has experienced some of the world and knows nothing is given without something expected in return. Holda doesn’t seem to want anything from the two but accepts their offer to do chores in exchange for food and a bed. Gretel notices there are no animals or fruit trees around and wonders where the pig, beef and milk come from. Holda begins to teach Gretel the ways of witchcraft and she is a quick study. Soon, Gretel begins having nightmares of secret rooms filled with corpses and children hiding in the woods. Nothing in Holda’s cabin is quite what it seems: The food, the dreams, nothing.
As I left “Gretel & Hansel,” I wasn’t exactly sure what to think. The film is stylish, going for a combination of depressing grey and smoky orange color schemes to light the film. There are massive storytelling gaps that might be considered artistic in a French impressionistic film from the 1950’s but now cause more confusion that anything else. There are no scares in the movie, only moments of tension and dread as you wonder what might be about the happen next. There’s also a thread of sadness and pity for these two children, sent out into a world that has nothing to offer but abuse, arduous labor and death. It’s not exactly the film to see if you’re looking for a lighthearted romp or a scary dive into a nightmare, but it might work if you’re forgiving and looking for a challenge.
To be honest, nothing much happens in “Gretel & Hansel.” There’s backstory involving the dark magic that appears later, a moment of peril as a strange man attacks the pair and a funny moment where the desperately hungry children trip balls after ingesting some magic mushrooms. Once the pair arrives at Holda’s cabin, the story puts on the brakes until the very end. There are some nightmares where Gretel sees a room under the house with a big table. The table has corpses under a sheet. There are other nightmares that might be real. Much of the film involves Holda and Gretel talking. It isn’t anything that interesting yet is presented as a revelation of dark insights. It works well enough to instill a desire to see what’s next, but the film only delivers anything truly interesting at the end. That ending feels undeserved and beyond what could be expected. I don’t want to spoil it for those wanting to see it, but “Gretel & Hansel” requires patience to find enjoyable.
“Gretel & Hansel” is rated PG-13 for disturbing images/thematic content, and brief drug material. I described the drug material earlier. The pair eat the mushrooms out of desperation, not to get high. There are scenes of blood, entrails and a severed limb poured onto a table. There is also a dream sequence showing children appearing on the other side of a mirror and pounding to get out. A crazed man is shot by an arrow in the head to prevent him from attacking the children. A nobleman asks Gretel if she’s a virgin. There is no foul language.
The original fairytale has received Hollywood’s attention before, most recently in 2013 with “Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters,” an R rated action movie where Jeremy Renner plays Hansel as a diabetic, caused by all the sweets he ate at the witch’s house. He and Gretel, played by Gemma Arterton, roam the countryside, killing witches for money. It was a silly film with more in common with “The Avengers” than Grimm’s fairytale, however it made over $250 million worldwide on a $50 million production budget. Perhaps that’s why this film got made.
“Gretel & Hansel” didn’t make me feel much of anything. It is an interestingly shot film with a great deal of potential. Focusing on Gretel, as the title suggests, is a good idea from co-writer and director Oz Perkins, son of “Psycho” himself, Tony Perkins. It is a shame that so little came from it. Made for a paltry $5 million, the film will likely make a profit and provide Perkins with more directing opportunities, however this seems like a missed opportunity. Sophia Lillis is a very good actress. She made an impression with “IT: Chapter One” and deserves a vehicle that will fully showcase her talents. Unfortunately, “Gretel & Hansel” only makes her stick out like a sore thumb because she doesn’t put on a British accent. It seems like a careless oversight to not have her a voice coach so her character would blend in better with a largely UK cast. That is just one of many mistakes this film makes. And still I found myself enjoying the movie despite its best efforts to turn me against it.
“Gretel & Hansel” gets three stars out of five.
There’s only one new film opening this week, “Birds of Prey.”
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