In Defense of Burning Witches

Review of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Directed by Tommy Wirkola


Deep in the woods of Germany, a sinister plot is brewing—and the brew will be seasoned with twelve kidnapped children from nearby Augsburg. Enter Hansel and Gretel: orphans, siblings, and professional witch hunters hired by the city to rescue the children. But they find that there’s more to the story than kidnapped children. Between a corrupt sheriff, a (non-internet) troll, and a most unwelcome sprint down memory lane, this job might be more than the pair can handle.

I am of two minds about this film. On the one hand, it has everything a good movie should have—action, suspense, old-timey machine-gun crossbows, and yes, witch burnings. The action scenes are well done, exciting to watch, and possibly alone make the movie worthwhile (though perhaps not at theater prices—certainly not at IMAX/3D prices). Likewise the characters are fun to watch and the dialogue is a delight, if and only if you can stand modern clichés being forced back in time. Which clearly I can.

On the other hand, Hansel & Gretel is just kind of trite. And not “trite” in the good way, like brain candy movies. Honestly, this would have been a better movie if they had just fully embraced the spirit of the B-movie and run with it. Instead, the film keeps trying to make itself “meaningful” by raising the point that we shouldn’t judge people as a group, but instead should look at the life of each individual and judge them by their actions. For Hansel and Gretel, this means [spoiler alert] learning that not all witches are bad. Most witches are, of course, but not all of them.

And in case you’re wondering how to tell a good witch from a bad witch: a bad witch is ugly (like, really ugly) and kills children. A good witch is not ugly and she never hurts anyone except bad witches. See how wrong we were to judge all witches as a group? We need to take each witch on a case by case basis and only burn those who really deserve it. (Meaning the ugly ones.)

The end result is an otherwise perfectly serviceable action/fantasy/what-have-you that ends up being weirdly preachy. Which is too bad, because by and large I did enjoy the movie. For the most part it only feels disjointed when it’s hammering home the “moral” that not all witches are bad. The rest of the time we get to watch Hawkeye and the girl from that terrible Bond movie do what they do best: beating on bad guys. And that is a good way to spend 90 minutes.

So will you like this film? I’d suggest that you’ll enjoy it if you liked A Knight’s Tale, The Brothers Grimm, or Constantine. If you didn’t like those or if you intentionally avoided them because they didn’t look like your cup of tea, you probably won’t like Hansel & Gretel either.

Dr. Coyle Neal teaches political philosophy and church history in Washington, DC, where many witches are hunted but few are burned. 

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