Gretel & Hansel (2020) Review
A SLUGGISH GRIMM RETELLING
Fairy tales are the spark of imagination; customary to being presented boundless adaptations and interoperations throughout many different cultures and countries around the world. While most are presented in child-like form (i.e. easy to follow, understand, and approachable for most ages), fairy tales have often derived from myths and legends; some of which have had “darker” origins and narratives from their more commonplace whimsical iterations. Of course, Hollywood has taken an interest in these “Once Upon a Time” forms of storytelling and translating them into a more cinematic (sometimes) different approach from its norm, including the more epic tale of Snow White in 2012’s Snow White and the Huntsman, the adventurous take on Jack and the Beanstalk in 2013’s Jack the Giant Slayer, the “another side, another story” aspect of Sleeping Beauty in 2014’s Maleficent, the horror-esque presentation of Little Red Riding Hood in 2011’s Red Riding Hood, and several others. Now, Orion Pictures (an MGM company) and director Oz Perkins releases the latest fairy tale inspired feature with the film Gretel & Hansel. Does the movie’s horror nuances from its way into its fairy tale premise or does it struggle to find a balance within its story and presentation?
A menacing pestilence is sweeping across the land, forcing difficult times for its people and dire decisions to be made. Such is the fate of a teenager named Gretel (Sophia Lillis) to grow up in a hurry, tasked with find some form of employment after her father left and her mother slips into madness. Gretel is devoted to her younger brother, Hansel (Sam Leakey), an earnest young boy who doesn’t quite understand the situation his sibling is in, lovingly protected by his sister guardianship, who refuses to abandon him. Forced out of their house by their mother’s insanity, Gretel and Hansel are sent into a forest of dangers, encountering those who wish to prey upon their youthful innocence. Looking for a safe heaven, the siblings come across a unique home in the woods, which is owned by Holda (Alice Krige), a seemingly kind old woman who’s happy to invite the two children into her dwelling for food and shelter. During the stay, Gretel finds a connection with Holda, who’s actually hiding a dark secret of witchcrafts, keeping special plans for Hansel, who suddenly disappears one night.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
It goes without saying that many (if not all) of us have grown up reading / hearing about fairy tales; stories of far away lands, good and evil, knights and dragons, and witches and princess that have caught the imagination and thematical messages of caution and triumph. Of course, as many know, the true origins behind such whimsical tales have been rooted in plenty of darker narratives that have a much more adult / twisted tale that the more commonplace child-like ones. As mentioned above, Hollywood has certainly indeed taken some ideas from these hints of a “adult” fairy tale origins have produced a handful of feature films that take the main established storylines of beloved children’s classic iterations and turn them on their heads. As to be expected, some definitely do work, while other languish on the side lines; muddling the fairy tale premise with a flurry of mundane entertainment choices / decisions. An example of this is in 2013’s Snow White and the Huntsman, with the film having a good idea in transforming the tale of Snow White into a more dark and epic narrative (filled with fantastic elements and more grit), but the project sort of wades in the middling realm; producing that feature that looks good (certainly looks like blockbuster endeavor), but comes up short. Thus, the idea of translating something new and different into classic fairy tales (into multiple genres of cinematic storytelling) has been, more or less, challenge.
Naturally, this brings me back to talking about the Gretel & Hansel, a 2020 horror motion picture that takes its inspiration from the iconic Grimm brother’s fairy tale of Hansel & Gretel. Of course, this isn’t the first time that the fairy tale story of Hansel & Gretel has been made its way to the big-screen, with 2013’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters bringing a more action-oriented / supernatural escapades to the proceedings by transforming the two main characters of the Grimm tale to professional witch hunters. Naturally, the movie got mostly negative reviews and I’ll just leave it at that. As for this 2020 film, I really didn’t hear much “buzz” about this project (online at least) until I saw the film’s movie trailer a few times when I went to my local movie theater. From the trailer alone, it definitely looked intriguing; taking the classic fairy tale story and turning it into a more horror-based film (with a fairy tale premise underling). As many readers know, I’m not the biggest fan of horror movies, but I was willing to give the movie a try. Plus, I was a bit curious to see how this movie would play with famed Grimm tale. So, I decided to check out the movie during its opening weekend; hoping to get “spooked” within its narrative and visual nuances. Was I? Well, not so much. While the film’s atmospheric nature is great and the small cast give solid performances, Gretel and Hansel can’t really escape been a sluggish feature that feels tiresome from start to finish. The movie isn’t a total letdown, but it really can’t “snap” itself with a lackluster narrative and half-baked ideas.
Gretel & Hansel is directed by Oz Perkins, who’s previously known for directing such film projects like The Blackcoat’s Daughter and I am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House. While Perkins background started out in acting, his transition into the director’s chair has been more along the lines of the horror genre (see the two movies that I mentioned). Thus, Perkins’s attractions to this movie is quite suitable and certainly does his job in approaching the Hansel & Gretel story with a more horror-like elements. In that regard, the movie certainly succeeds, with Perkins framing Gretel & Hansel with a dreary sense hopelessness within a countryside; painting the classic saying “the world is a cruel place” right from the get-go of the film’s opening scene and setting the stage up for overall tone of the film’s setting and narration. This continues throughout the film as Perkins takes Gretel and Hansel on a journey that definitely feels creepy and has plenty of supernatural (visual) appeal on its horror aspects (more on that below). Plus, it’s quite interesting to see how Perkins stages a lot of the film’s key moments, including the meeting of Holda’s dwell and the big secret behind the elderly woman’s powers. In addition, the film’s script, which was penned by Rob Hayes, present a certain “coming of age” perspective from Gretel’s perspective (and a little bit in Hansel’s character as well), with certainly is a welcomed addition to the classic fairy tale premise and does a bit flesh out the characters in the movie’s story. There’s a lot more to stay about Gretel’s story arc in the film, but I’ll leave that untouched as it probably will spoil the movie’s plot. Lastly, Perkins does make Gretel & Hansel have a short runtime, which clocks in at around 87 minutes (one hour and twenty-seven minutes); offering up a nice presentation that gets in and (theoretically) gets out without any unnecessary side plots that aren’t important.
Whether or not the movie is to your liking, one of the greatest strengths that the Gretel & Hansel to offer is in its visual appeal and overall technical presentation. With the movie having a relatively low production budget (roughly $5 million), Perkins and his team smartly utilize their money in the various “behind the scenes” production; making the film’s overall “look and feel” a visual horror masterpiece from start to finish. From the production layout and set designs (love the exterior look of Holda’s house) to the dreary “mood” atmospheric nature that works in the feature’s “dark / horror” fairy tale aesthetics. Thus, the variety of main players, including Jeremy Reed (production design), Christine McDonagh (art direction), and Leonie Prendergast (costume designs) give this movie’s background setting and cinematic design that’s certainly a character more so than any of the actual characters in the movie. As I said, the film’s visual appeal is definitely one of the biggest highlights that I personally have with this film. In addition, the film’s score, which was composed by Galo Olivares, compliments Gretel & Hansel’s visual nuances by creating a several melodic pieces that work and kind of has a bit of a “retro” feel in a few composition themes.
Unfortunately, Gretel & Hansel struggles to find its proper cinematic footing within its own Grimm fairy tale premise. Why does this movie fail? Well, it’s quite obvious that the movie finds difficulty to create an engaging narrative. Much of the film’s runtime meanders through a simplistic premise (the base line of the Hansel & Gretel tale), but even though that both Perkins’s vision for the film and Hayes’s script tries to elevate the film’s plot with a more darker and sinister innerworkings, the end result of if never quite reaches its intended goal. Who is the culprit? Well, it’s a combination of both of them. First, there is Hayes’s script, which definitely has a few new elements that are welcomed to the movie, but there’s glaring “lack of substance” feeling throughout majority of the feature. Yes, the film’s script retools the classic fairy tale narrative, but it feels like there’s not much to it; creating a sort of “half-baked” story that offers up a great atmospheric setting and a thinly written plot. There’s a lot of question that I have about the film’s tale by the time the credits begin to roll and that’s really a good thing, especially since the movie’s story is rather simplistic. There’s plenty of dark mystery and horror-like elements throughout, but script is, more or less, bland to the touch. Plus, looking beyond that, if you know the vague premise of the fairy tale story of Hansel & Gretel, you’ll be able to figure out where the movie ultimately draws a conclusion to, which is predictable. That being said, I did like the twist at the end.
In Perkin’s direction, the director seems struggle to fill a feature within a cinematic tale. Granted, I do praise him for keeping the film’s runtime relatively short and straightforward (no side stories), but it’s quite clear that Perkins finds the task at hand (helming Gretel & Hansel) a somewhat daunting task and presents the feature in a very sluggish way. This is quite noticeable in the first act of the movie, which takes a considerable amount of time to introducing us (the viewers) to the film’s world and the characters therein, which is relatively limited. The setup is there and is good, but it is presented in a way that’s not entirely original and / or entertaining. Gretel & Hansel is (for sure) a slow-burner cinematic endeavor and, while that might be a good thing for storytelling, Perkins creates a rather boring narration with many sluggish points that create several pacing issues throughout. Plus, there are a few scenes (here and there) that fail to impress, including both Gretel and Hansel eating mushrooms and experiencing a psychedelic hallucination as well as mysterious clothed figures that lurked in the distance in many sequences involving the two main characters. Basically, Perkins approaches Gretel & Hansel with the purest intentions of making the film have a certain style and flavor, which is does, but fails to create a engaging / engrossing feature, with the movie choosing more style over substance.
The cast in Gretel & Hansel is relatively small, with most of the main players (i.e. Gretel, Hansel, and Holda) up to the task in bringing these characters to life on-screen. Of course, actress Sophia Lillis, known for her roles in IT, Sharp Objects, and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase, plays the best in the movie as Gretel, which the film heavily focuses on by acting as the main protagonist character. As mentioned above, the movie’s story captures the juxtaposition of Gretel’s dilemma and “coming of age” maturity with both focuses on her brother and the power that Hold seeks in her and Lillis demonstrates that dilemma beautifully in her role. She certainly takes center stage in feature and is able to hold the position for much of the movie’s duration. Plus, she never has that “over acted” approach by playing Gretel with a more subtle demeanor, but is also able to display different emotions within her character.
Behind her, actress Alice Krige, known for her roles in Star Trek: First Contact, Silent Hill, and Children of Dune, plays the part of the “witch” in the Hansel & Gretel story, with film giving her name of Holda. Like Lillis, Krige, who is quite familiar of playing in horror / supernatural projects, certainly plays the part of Hold the right way; demonstrating her talents of being creepy and crawly with Holda. There’s a sort of wickedness that Krige brings, but in a subtle way that feels appropriately done and not so much in a “over the top” way (which could’ve been done). Thus, Krige is perfect in the role of Holda. Lastly, young actor Sam Leakey, known for his roles in MotherFatherSon and Twist, plays the character of Hansel. In the movie, Hansel is more of the secondary players (in comparsion to Gretel and Holda), with the character getting pushed aside more often than not. Leakey gets the job done with his portrayal of Hansel, but ends up being more “whiney” than expected. I somewhat expected Hansel to be like that, but I was hoping that the character to be more developed than just the simplistic “young brother” persona.
With the movie primarily focusing on the film’s three main characters, Gretel & Hansel doesn’t really have much of a supporting cast. With the exception of actor Charles Babalola (The Legend of Tarzan and Black Mirror) as “the Hunter”, a man who aides Gretel and Hansel on their journey into the woods, the rest of the players in the movie are extremely minor and are, more or less, background stock-like fillers in minor capacities (i.e. one or two scenes).
In search of safety and a place to call home, Gretel and her younger brother (Hansel) journey into the darkening woods to encounter a strange old woman with sinister secret in the movie Gretel & Hansel. Director Oz Perkins takes the well-known Grimm fairy tale of Hansel & Gretel and reimagines it in the filmmaking style of the horror genre; presenting a narrative that’s dark and twisted that’s wrapped in a unique “coming of age” guise. While the movie’s atmospheric visuals darker undertones definitely work as well as the small (yet solid) cast, the film doesn’t rise to the challenge; floundering its premise with pace, fragmented storytelling, lackluster substance, and thin premise to fully carry a feature film to the full stretch a cinematic motion picture. To me, this movie was pretty “meh”. I did like the visual atmospheric / aesthetics and it was definitely creepy and dark (a Grimm fairy tale indeed) and the acting was good from most, but the movie’s half-baked ideas and sluggish pacing failed to impress me as I’m sure it will do the same with other viewers as well. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a “skip it” as there’s not a whole lot to substance nor entertainment value to keep the feature afloat (or even memorable). All in all, Gretel & Hansel is a cinematic dark tale that has its moments, but struggles in its narrative; leaving viewers perplexed and somewhat off-putting in its slow-burning tale of the two fairy siblings and the witch that they encounter in the woods.
2.8 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: January 31st, 2020
Reviewed On: February 8th, 2020
Gretel & Hansel is 87 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for disturbing images / thematic content and brief drug material