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"Gretel & Hansel" Review

The Brothers Grimm fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel has been told many times in many forms since its publication in 1812, most recently in the campy action-horror take of 2013's Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters where the grown-up siblings are butt-kicking witch hunters for hire. But the tale takes a bit of a twist in its latest incarnation, the title-flipped and moody Gretel & Hansel.

Set in an unspecified Medieval time and place, this take begins with the telling of a little girl born in a village who took ill as a baby. The father took her to an enchantress who removed the illness, but gave the power of foresight to the girl. While the villagers initially liked having a seer in their midst, she started to use her power to kill, including her father, which earned her a trip to the woods to be abandoned and become a fairy tale.

Then we meet Gretel (Sophia Lillis, IT, I Am Not Okay With This) and Hansel (newcomer Sam Leaky) as they go to seek employment with a wealthy landowner who seems more interested in Gretel's virginity than other skills. They flee back home to their mother, who in her poverty and madness banishes them to go find someplace else to live and fend for themselves, which could be difficult for children who look to be about 14 and 8.

After a run-in with some unexplained ghoul from which they're saved by a huntsman, he gives them directions to where they may find work and home a couple days away. Along the way they encounter a home deep in the woods. Starving, they peer in the windows and see a great feast on the table and let themselves in, soon making the acquaintance of an old woman (Alice Krige, the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact) who anyone familiar with the story isn't what she appears.

The new angle Gretel & Hansel takes is to focus on Gretel's incipient witchcraft powers, which the Witch encourages her to develop, offering her access to her grimoire. While Hansel enjoys the good food which mysteriously appears and playing at cutting down trees, Gretel is suspicious and as her powers grow, she becomes concerned about what that could do to her; will they make her evil?

It's a common knock on films that they're style over substance and unfortunately that's what makes Gretel & Hansel difficult to recommend. On the plus side, it looks amazing. Director Oz Perkins and cinematographer Galo Olivares (in only his 2nd feature, he's definitely one to watch) immediately set a lush, rich, moody tone of a bleak world painted in colored light. The compositions feel like cousins to Kubrick or Bergman films and there's a very European vibe though Perkins is American and Olivares is Mexican.

The performances are also fine; Lillis is definitely on a tear and was only 16 when this was filmed. But the plot itself is extremely thin and unsubstantial and when the reveals occur, they actually confuse more than clarify. Despite a brief 87-minute run time, it still feels slack, empty, and not particularly scary while lovely to look at. I'm not sure if they were trying to make some feminist statement about how women in Medieval times weren't exactly equals, because if there was a little boy killing people in his village, he probably would've found himself dumped in the woods, too.

Overall, Gretel & Hansel is a meandering trip through the woods with no particular destination in mind despite being a fine scenic trip.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.


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