(There are spoilers in the review below!)
It’s an enjoyable ride, an energetic action movie with all the bells and whistles of early-21st-century cinema: Trendy (and pricy) 3-D glasses. Sexy, take-no-prisoners heroes. Monstrous reimaginings of your run-of-the-mill witch. Modern inventions gone medieval (think tasers, machine guns, and insulin injections to treat Hansel’s “sugar sickness”). Wry humour. CGI trolls named Edward.
But it’s also a modern reimagining of an idea straight out of the history books. The hunting and execution of witches was real… and it usually involved targeting older, independent-living women as consorts of Satan. It was a way to punish women for acting in ways the male social leaders deemed inconsistent with the community’s Christian values.
The makers of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters chose to tactfully skirt the religious roots of historical witch-hunting, with nary a Bible-waver in sight. Here the witch menace is a purely practical concern: “Your children aren’t safe!” Yet, the irreligious basis of their particular moral panic doesn’t keep the townsfolk from making a few hysteria-induced missteps, just like the real-world Bible-believers of history. The titular heroes’ first act is to rescue a falsely-accused witch, Mina (Pihla Viitala), from execution by an overzealous sheriff (Peter Stormare).
Sheriff Berringer has to learn a lesson: that in this new world of witch-hunting, old methods of picking out a wicked witch won’t cut it. But the new methods rely just as heavily on a judgment about a woman’s worth.
As an uncommonly delightful 3-D opening-credits sequence shows us, Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton) have been witch-hunting since that first legendary encounter with the witch who lived in a house made of candy. Hired by the mayor to resolve the town’s ongoing witch menace, they launch an investigation worthy of Law & Order, which leads them to discover more than they anticipated about their own family history.
In the world of this movie, it’s easy to identify a wicked witch; they are invariably hideous, monstrous creatures, deformed or crippled or animal-like or just plain weird-looking, a phenomenon explained by the corrupting influence of “evil magic.” But Hansel and Gretel soon learn that “white” (good) witches walk among them, unidentifiable, showing no outward deformities because they refuse to use their powers for evil purposes. The woman they rescued, Mina, is in fact a witch — a very pretty one, passing for normal. In fact, all the white witches we see in this story are exceptionally beautiful and sympathetic characters, setting up a link between beauty and goodness, ugliness and corruption.
That’s definitely problematic. There’s an intersection of gender, beauty, and morality here that’s hard to ignore. Significantly, virtually all the witches in Hansel & Gretel are women. (I might have seen a male witch in a crowd scene, but I couldn’t swear to it.) That’s rooted in history; accusations of witchcraft were associated almost exclusively with women, particularly the women who stepped outside the period’s normative sex roles. Independence, free-thinking, confidence, assertiveness, and sensuality were not positive characteristics in these historical, religion-based communities, and accusations of witchcraft often punished women who displayed them.
In Hansel & Gretel, though, there’s little distinction between the behavior of good and wicked witches; the film’s female characters, both good and evil, display the characteristics of empowered, distinctly unbiblical women.
So how do you identify a wicked witch in the world of this movie? Look at her appearance.
Goodness or wickedness aren’t demonstrated by her behavior; they’re located in her body. Some of the visible traits that characterize wicked witches include scales, fangs, horns, spikes, cracking skin, and crawling veins. Others, however, are all-too-real human characteristics that appear only among witches, never in the good guys’ camp or amongst the morally-neutral villagers: characteristics like fatness, androgyny, hairiness, signs of aging, or disability. (The Blood Moon sabbath scenes, prominently featuring a witch crawling around with no legs, were particularly troubling in that respect. You don’t need to be evil to lose your legs!)
But where wickedness is equal to ugliness, it’s troubling that some of the witches’ primary noticeable traits involve very real-world deviations from the standard of beauty embodied by Gretel and Mina.
Consider what that says about the way we value women today as compared to the values of historical witch-hunters. In Hansel & Gretel, religious ideas about what makes a witch have been dropped, and that’s all for the good. But what’s replacing it? In this story women are valuable if they are conventionally pretty and wicked if they don’t conform to cinema’s narrow beauty standards. And where wickedness is equal to ugliness, it’s troubling that some witches’ primary traits don’t exist solely in fantasy.
Women with short hair, fat bodies, missing limbs, and wrinkly faces exist whether or not they’re evil. Yet those traits are associated with evil in the same way Puritan women in historical witch-hunts were called evil if they displayed too much intelligence, stubbornness, or sensuality.
It turns out the siblings’ (feminine, slender, physically beautiful) mother was a Grand White Witch, making Gretel also a Grand White Witch despite having never employed any witchy powers in her life. That makes Gretel’s heart a necessary ingredient in a massive spell the witches must cast under the Blood Moon, a phenomenon that takes place only once every twenty years. It’s in preparation for this spell that the witches have been kidnapping village children for ritual sacrifice. Corrupt magic indeed.
Except, when you take a good hard look at the witches’ motivations, the moral underpinnings become a little bit trickier to sort out. The witches want to cast a spell that will make them impervious to fire. Why? Because the villagers keep burning them at the stake. They’re stealing children, yes… but to keep themselves from being burned at the stake for an inherited, inborn trait.
Obviously I’m never in favor of the blood sacrifice of children. But I’m also not in favor of setting women on fire for failing to conform to social standards of feminine worth, and the history of witchcraft presented in the film’s universe seems to revolve around trying to protect themselves from the danger of execution imposed on them by townspeople. Their entire plan revolves around a fight for survival in a world that reads pure evil in their bodies — including fat rolls and wrinkles, chopped-off hair and missing limbs.
So where does that leave us as viewers of the movie? Hopefully we can enjoy the exciting, fun-to watch elements of a fantasy story in which we celebrate Gretel for being a tough, sassy, butt-kicking female character, and still maintain awareness of how she earns that celebration — and the right to consider herself a witch-hunter instead of a witch — because of her physical beauty. The lead witches display just as much attitude as Gretel, with just as much fight in them, but get coded by their physical appearance as evil.
How different is that, really, from the days when women could be labeled as consorts of Satan for living independently, quarreling with a neighbor-woman, or having a mole interpreted by Puritan magistrates as the devil’s mark?