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Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

Recent years have seen classic fairy tales spawn a variety of cinematic adaptations. In some cases, we see family friendly updates like Mirror, Mirror. In others, we see dark reimaginings like Snow White and the Huntsman. In each of these cases, regardless of how successful they might have been in achieving their artistic visions, it was clear what type of movie was being made. With Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, such is hardly the case.

The film opens with a playful macabre tone, hearkening back to the family-friendly (but nonetheless scary) Halloween movies of the '80s and '90s, and prompting hope for this attitude to carry forth throughout the movie. The brimming imagery, silly dialogue, and overacting of the introductory scene makes it feels like the kind of thing you'd have loved as a child — the sort of film you'd make a tradition of watching every October... until you reached 9th grade and were forever robbed of your innocent love of simple pleasures.

But following the intro — which sends young Hansel and Gretel off into the pitch black woods after their mother and father are forced to hide them from an undisclosed threat, and subsequently throws them into the clutches of a decrepit old witch in a candy house — we're treated to a movie with a stark identity crisis. The subject matter, pacing, aesthetic style, and sophistication of the material all suggest a film for children. But for some reason, this movie seems bent on proving itself ''mature.'' Kind of like when you reached 9th grade and were forever robbed of your innocent love of simple pleasures, and felt the need to prove just how grown up you were, Hansel and Gretel ''rebels'' against its childlike nature by throwing in very jagged flashes of grotesque gore and misplaced expletives.

The two youngsters manage to escape the wrath of a witch and then devote their lives to taking the witch race down, hired as bounty hunters by a small town mayor to recover the kidnapped children of a handful of villagers. Now, this could successfully translate in two different ways: it could take form as a fun-for-all-ages adventure wrapped in black magic and kooky characters, or as a dark, adult deconstruction of the classic tale. What we get instead is a grab for both, and an achievement of neither, with the confusion of the mixed message landing Hansel and Gretel in a nebulous middle ground.

The story we're faced with seems best suited for young ones. Simplicity is the name of the game for titular heroes Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arteron, who don't have much in the way of character beyond ''We kill witches!'' Renner is the puggish kill-first-question-later gun-toter, stricken with diabetes (the strangest element of this movie) after his run-in with the candy house witch; Arteron is vicious with a crossbow and a headbutt, but more even-keeled and demanding of evidence of witchcraft before imparting her wrath. The duo are teamed with the likes of Mina (Pihla Viitala), an enigmatic woman saved from torch-wielding villagers by Hansel and Gretel, Ben (Thomas Mann), an overly eager young fan of the pair who looks and acts like he's straight out of Growing Pains, and eventually Edward (Derek Mears), a closed-mouthed troll who takes a liking to Gretel for mysterious reasons. The uncomplicated characters, fast-flying broomstick chases, and incredibly accessible overarching plot would and should land us with a PG-13 gunner.

But the prevalence of the aforementioned gore, nonstop violence, and harsh language stamps the picture with an R-rating. And for the adults to whom this brand of movie is limited, something like Hansel and Gretel would come off as brainless. Not dull — the pacing ensures that you won't be bored. Not overwhelmingly bad in any way, really. Just lacking in substance and charm. In a word, dumb.

While preteens and young teens might eat this kind of thing up (whether or not they should is an entirely different question), adults will find it unfulfilling. Empty characters, paper-thin plots, effortless (this is not a compliment) acting by the whole cast — even generally talented players like head witch Famke Janssen and villainous sheriff Peter Stormare — will give a sophisticated viewer nothing to hold onto. But for some reason, the movie insists on its head smashings and awkward exclamations of ''F**k!'' Throwing these to the wayside might have actually granted the movie a more successful mission statement.

Hansel and Gretel doesn't have anything at its disposal capable of making it a great movie, or even a good one. But a decision as to whom it wishes to please would at least have bumped it up a notch or two. No, it's not a painful watch, nor an offensive one. As suggested above, it simply offers nothing discernible. And to whom? That's the big question. rated this film 2 stars.