The Brothers Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel has been adapted for the screen countless times, most recently and regrettably in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.
Now we have yet another take. Gretel & Hansel, the latest from The Blackcoat’s Daughter director Oz Perkins, primarily sticks to the narrative beats that will be familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the story. We have the titular sister and brother, played respectively by Sophia Lillis and Sam Leakey, who stumble upon a mysterious house in the middle of the dark woods. The homeowner, played by Alice Krige, accommodates them with a table full of endless feasts. But the longer they stay, the more nefarious her intentions become.
Perkins uses this setup as a jumping off point to tell a more personalized coming-of-age tale centered around Gretel, whose prominence in the story is suggested by the film’s title. This time around, she’s twice as old as Hansel and is unquestionably the one in charge. She’s also been gifted with magical abilities, which are recognized and further developed by the witch who resides at that ever-tempting house. The focus on a female protagonist struggling with the temptation of witchcraft in a bleak setting is strikingly similar to 2016’s The Witch, even though the results here aren’t as compelling as they are in that excellent period horror piece.
Gretel & Hansel also resembles The Witch in its keen attention to production design and cinematography, which are often first-rate and enough to make it worth recommending. The film is more interested in accumulating dread than slapping audiences in the face with overt scares and much of this done with the atmosphere that creeps at the edges of the frame. Cinematographer Galo Olivarez uses unconventional lighting schemes to capture the beauty and terror of this world, sometimes even within the same shot. One such image, in which Gretel’s face is lit both by the blue of the moonlight and the orange of a flickering flame, is hauntingly lovely and of a caliber that one might not expect from a horror movie unceremoniously released over Super Bowl weekend.
The main trouble in Gretel & Hansel comes from the underdeveloped screenplay by Perkins and co-writer Rob Hayes, which doesn’t do quite enough to expand on the original fairy tale. Besides Gretel’s aforementioned personal journey, nearly everything else in the script feels like a distraction and filler to pad the already lean 87 minute runtime. Save a few scenes in the film’s opening with characters that are never seen nor heard from again, we spend the entirety of the movie with the trio of Gretel, Hansel, and the Witch. That’s not inherently an issue, but there isn’t enough character development between the trio to justify hanging the whole story on their shoulders.
In an attempt to patch up some of the shallow character work, Perkins includes an intermittent voiceover from Gretel, in which she ponders rhetorical questions like, “Is it wise to trust someone who appears when you need them?” These philosophical musings along with the lush landscapes give viewers an idea of what Terrence Malick may come up with if he were tasked to adapt a Grimm tale. Even though this voiceover rumination grows more pretentious as the movie goes on, I appreciate the artsy ambition in a genre that is often sorely in need of it. Gretel & Hansel is a classic case of style over substance, but when the style is this superb, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
Coming to theaters this weekend
Birds of Prey, starring Margot Robbie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, gives the DC Comics baddie Harley Quinn her own spin-off in which she recruits other female vigilantes to take down a crime lord.
The Lodge, starring Riley Keough and Jaeden Martell, is a psychological chiller about a soon-to-be stepmom who gets snowed in with her fiancé’s two children at a remote cabin.
Playing at Cinema Center this weekend are all of the Academy Award-nominated shorts for the Animated, Live Action, and Documentary categories, which you can catch before Oscar Night on Sunday, Feb. 9.