As a dedicated tree hugger, the last few months of winter have been disheartening, to say the least. Normally I’d buy a copy of American Forests for some (ahem) private viewing. But when I heard that Orion Pictures had released a dark retelling of the classic Grimm’s fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” filmed in the dark woods of Ireland, I knew I had to see it. And I’m glad I did. Gretel & Hansel is a must-see for those who love fantasy with an edge.
The title Gretel & Hansel does feel a little odd on the tongue, as we’re all used to saying it in reverse. However, make no mistake about it: this story is only a loose adaptation of the traditional tale, and Gretel (Sophia Lillis of It fame) is the standout protagonist. Within the first twenty minutes, Gretel has the most #MeToo job interview ever, then is forced to flee her home with her little brother after their mother is driven mad by hunger. After wandering the dense forests for several days, they come upon a suspiciously well-stocked home in the middle of nowhere (sadly, there is no candy casa, but I did want to buy the A-frame house and renovate it on TV). Inside the house, they find the Witch Holda (Alice Krige, known as the Borg Queen from Star Trek: First Contact), who lets them stay as she mentors Gretel, who is discovering her own magical powers. After realizing that their savior is in fact too good to be true, Gretel must realize her inner strength to save her brother – and, ultimately, herself.
The original story’s moral could be summed up as: don’t trust strangers, and if it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Gretel & Hansel includes that, but it is above all a movie about growing up and realizing one’s power in a hostile world.
The movie’s messages and themes are good, but its main draw is the aesthetic: the moody, dark forests and eerie synth-wave soundtrack delight viewers with gothic sensibilities. (Particularly those of us who tire of Disney’s saccharine treatment of stories that were originally often quite morbid.) As eye candy goes, Gretel & Hansel is 60% cacao chocolate: dark, but not mouth-puckeringly bitter.
Although the dialogue is a bit weak at points, the three main characters deliver excellent performances in their respective roles. Krige, in particular, plays the Witch to near-perfection; she would be unsettling even to those unfamiliar with the original fairy tale. This rendition seamlessly includes a short back story as well that, oddly enough, makes her a partially sympathetic character. I find this a refreshing aspect of the retelling, as traditional fairy tales rarely include nuances in their characters. My only complaint about Krige’s performance is her ambiguous British Isles accent; at certain points, I needed subtitles to follow her.
Overall, Gretel & Hansel is not terribly scary, but it is lovely. Fans of the dark fairy tale genre (à la Coraline, Pan’s Labyrinth, etc.) will enjoy its beauty and sleep soundly after.