Once upon a time, many years ago, a father left his two children in the woods and vanished into the darkness. On their way through the sinister trees, the brother and sister came upon a house made of gingerbread. Inside lived a witch who attempted to fatten up the boy for her table, and sent the girl to fetch wood. “Hotter,” she urged poor Gretel. Until one day when the boy contracted “the sugar sickness” from too much food and the girl shoved the witch in her own oven, slammed the door, and screeched, “Is it hot enough for you now, bitch?”
Thus, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters was born. Rather than let the experience scar them, they armed themselves and become experts in dispatching witches, saving a few hapless innocent victims along the way. As Hansel says, in a proper witch, there are undeniable stains of dark magic, “a rot sets into their teeth and their soul.” And the duo wind up in familiar digs just in time for the Blood Moon to arise, and the biggest, baddest, bitchiest witch of them all to rise… with a scheme that could protect herself and her “sisters” from being burned alive forevermore.
This is, shall we say, not your grandmother’s fairy tale, but I suspect the Brothers Grimm wouldn’t mind it. There’s a cheekiness to it amid the extreme violence and occasional profanities, in the drollness with which the duo interacts with atrocities (“Ugh, the curse of the hunger for crawling things,” Gretel deadpans after seeing a man explode, while picking muck out of her hair, “I [expletive] hate that one.”) They pick up a “fan boy” along the way, who has a whole scrapbook of their deeds he wishes them to inscribe, and who loses his lunch after seeing them dispatch a witch (she had it coming). And there’s an explanation for why their dad left them in the woods. In contrast to the original story, it’s not because he’s a jerk.
The original fairy tales were both morality stories, intended to teach children good values, and intended to scare them. Modern readers can infer all kinds of things in them, from Red Riding Hood being a cautionary tale of a girl blossoming into womanhood, to Hansel and Gretel being about the perils of wandering in the world. It’s also a harrowing throwback to a far more brutal time, in which parents would abandon their children to ensure the survival of the family. In a time before birth control, children came in abundance, and in the original, famine had struck the land. (Imagine being a child hearing this tale, and worrying about whether your father would leave you in the woods—best behave yourself, then!) In the earlier versions, Hansel used white stones dropped out of his pocket to lead them back to the cottage—a perhaps intentional choice by the learned writers, because white stones were used to indicate innocence in Ancient Greece. And the children are innocent victims of happenstance… who, though they feel frightened, still manage to remain clear and level-headed, from Hansel getting them home and outsmarting the witch to Gretel shoving her in the oven.
In all versions, the forest is an important metaphor—because it’s a wild, dangerous, and untamed place, full of hidden perils, and the duo emerge from it “stronger” than they were before, having survived its sinister threats. In the film, this is also the case—Hansel and Gretel went into the forest as children and emerged witch hunters. He has a cavalier attitude about life and avoids painful discussions, whereas she has a ruthless desire to “make sure” a witch is a witch before they burn her to death—and she will smack the local sheriff in the face if she has to. While they face perils also in the town, it’s in the woods both where Gretel faces a terrible fate and… where she discovers her rescuer, a lovable and protective troll named Edward.
What I most love about this modern twist on an original story which comes with awesome medieval weapons galore, inaccurate leather pants, and sadistic and irreverent humor sprinkled throughout, is how fun it is, how it never takes itself seriously, and how it dares to “dream big” in terms of reinventing a story. It doesn’t play it safe, it goes whole hog into crazy town and stays there. But it’s not all rigging up traps for witches and missing kids, or even Gretel punching jerks in the face, there’s a genuine sense of love and “having each other’s backs” that keeps the duo together.
I also love Gretel’s journey of transformation, from believing one thing (“witches are always bad”) to coming to accept you cannot judge everyone according to the same standard. It’s a fine reminder in troubled times that not everyone you cannot understand is “evil.” Sometimes they are more like you than you think. Or, considering the cannibalistic witches the duo dispatch to hell, maybe not.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors and writing novels about them, caring for her beloved cats, running a MBTI typing blog, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.