The prospect of yet another take on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale will probably make you roll your eyes at first. As one of the most popular Brothers Grimm stories, it has been through countless retellings and adaptations for more than two centuries. When you have versions of the tale that range from stoner comedies like Hansel & Gretel Get Baked to the campy ridiculousness of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters- finding a new angle probably seems futile.
With that in mind, director Oz Perkins and writer Rob Hayes opted out of reinventing the wheel. Instead, the two go for an incredibly stylized approach with keeping the plot simple and mostly faithful to the original tale. Gretel & Hansel, so titled due to Gretel being slightly aged up and taking the reins of the protagonist, is not exactly a horror film. There are very little scares to be found here, but in their place is a bleak and foreboding atmosphere. An aura that makes this particular film adaptation one to remember.
Much of this movie plays out exactly as you already know. After the death of their father, hard times fall upon the house of 16-year-old Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and 8-year-old Hansel (Samuel Leakey). Their mother, unable to provide for herself or her children, tells Gretel that she best start digging graves for the three of them. Desperate, the two kids set off into the dark vast woods in search of work. They come upon the pitch-black house of Holda (Alice Krige), a kind old woman who feeds them excessive amounts of food and allows them to stay for an indefinite amount of time. Naturally, Holda gives off an extremely witchy vibe and Gretel’s suspicions of the woman’s intentions grow as mysterious dreams plague her nightly.
Gretel & Hansel is visually striking almost immediately. Every single shot of this film is gorgeous. Cinematographer Galo Olivares makes the woods appear enormous, never-ending, and sufficiently creepy. Observant viewers will notice hooded figures roaming in between the tall dead trees throughout the movie. As Gretel states early on, the big bad world the siblings wander into feels like a gaping mouth; one ready to swallow the two whole at any moment. Fittingly, the forest has never been presented in quite as menacing of a way since Robert Eggers’ The Witch.
However, the endless sea of looming trees pales in comparison to the dark corners of Holda’s house. Halls seem to stretch longer than they should and delicious feasts still manage to look like carrion. There is so much to admire in Olivares’ camerawork. This combined with the impeccable production design of Jeremy Reed achieves a haunting look and atmosphere that matches the best of the horror genre. Gretel, coming to terms with her own womanhood, has dreams and visions so frequently that the line between reality often blurs, giving the film a continuously dreamlike quality. It is totally mesmerizing.
There are some interesting deviations from the original tale, such as Gretel beginning to develop her own brand of unnatural powers similar to Holda’s. Both Lillis and Krige perfectly capture the tense but curious relationship that their characters have with one another. This is a coming-of-age story for the young woman, one that is filled with dialogue about growth, evolution, and freeing yourself of hindering attachments. It is way more thoughtful and impressive than any horror movie released so early in the year has any business being.
Still, all of the perfect stylized shots in the world cannot make up for dull and plodding pacing. The film moves at a leisurely stroll and much of it reaches a standstill once it reaches the house. We know how this story goes and where it is headed; it is a simple one that can be told in mere minutes. While Gretel & Hansel is by no means a long film (under an hour and a half), it still winds up dragging its feet. The atmospheric experience that Perkins is going for is genuinely fantastic, but it robs the plot and its characters of any sense of urgency.
It is certainly enjoyable to look at, but audiences are likely to get restless or even bored at points. Everything from Gretel & Hansel’s sets, designs, to its performances are at the top of their game- but its story simply is not interesting or gripping enough. The film still definitely has markings of a possible cult classic and genre fans in the mood for a wholly different experience are sure to find lots to enjoy. It stands out among a crowded pool of other adaptations.