Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 10, 2020)
Not too many years ago, Hollywood developed an infatuation with “grown-up” versions of fairy tales. Though the films really aimed more for a teen audience, flicks like Snow White and the Huntsman and Red Riding Hood took these old children’s stories and updated them in a more mature, action-oriented manner.
Among these efforts, we got 2013’s Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, a movie that offered a radical reimagining of the source. 2020’s Gretel & Hansel brings another take on the tale, though one without the superhero razzmatazz of the 2013 version.
Set in a stark realm beset by famine, a baby suffers from an illness and seems likely to die. However, her father makes a deal with an enchantress to spare his daughter’s life.
This works, and it also gives the child (Giulia Doherty) the ability to see the future. She gains other magical powers as well, but she uses these for dark purposes and eventually finds herself consigned to a life of isolation in a secluded forest.
The child still “makes friends”, though, as she lures other youngsters to their demise. Parents use the powerful girl as a cautionary tale to warn their offspring to stay away from strangers.
Back in the pestilence-ravaged village, teen Gretel (Sophia Lillis) finds herself essentially peddled by her parents to potential “suitors” – ie, old pervs who want to use her for sex. When Gretel refuses, her mother (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) throws her out of the house.
Thus abandoned by her family, Gretel takes her younger brother Hansel (Samuel J. Leakey) and makes out on her own. When they go in search of food and work, they find a house packed with food and kindly woman (Alice Krige) who offers to help - with potential dark motives attached.
But you knew that already, didn’t you? After all, a version of Hansel & Gretel without a witch who lures children via cakes and candy wouldn’t really be Hansel & Gretel.
Though I referred to those action-oriented fairy tales from a 2011-13-ish earlier in the review, another film feels like a more obvious influence on Gretel: 2016’s The Witch. That one also embraced supernatural material set in a stark, unforgiving land.
More tellingly, Gretel and Witch share an unrelenting sense of Artsy Oddness. Both come with unconventional aspect ratio choices, and both pursue their stories in a slow manner that emphasizes mood over narrative.
Though not to the degree I expected when I perused reviews. Many discussions of Gretel emphasized its style over substance nature and implied it contained maybe five minutes of plot/character development.
While no one will mistake Gretel for a story-heavy tale, it includes decent movement and exposition. Granted, it does favor mood/ambience as well as metaphor, especially in the way it uses its narrative to reflect the way society views women.
Although Gretel doesn’t depict its themes in a heavy-handed manner, they also don’t work especially well. The movie uses them more as pretentious subtext than a meaningful element, as it doesn’t develop these notions beyond a superficial level.
Still, Gretel keeps its themes in the background enough that they don’t damage the end product. One can ignore these concepts and the movie works just fine.
To a degree, as least, as I can’t argue strenuously with those who view Gretel as a film that mainly emphasizes visuals and mood. The flick doesn’t flesh out its characters in a deep way, and the story fails to offer much real movement.
But what would we expect from a movie based on a short fairy tale? Given that it needs to fill 87 minutes, I can’t feel shocked that Gretel lacks enough narrative to fully fill that running time.
Though this leaves us with a story that progresses slowly, Gretel manages just enough intrigue to stave off boredom. Yeah, it moves at a deliberate pace, but it doesn’t turn plodding or boring.
Lillis helps. Already a fairly accomplished actor at 18, she manages to bring heart and power to her underwritten role, and her scenes with Krige show spark and intensity.
Leakey does less well, mainly because he feels too much like a traditional Adorable Movie Kid. However, because he exists in the film mainly to whine and get fat, he causes no overt problems.
Ultimately, Gretel becomes a mixed bag, but it remains an intriguing mixed bag. Despite its thin story, it brings enough to the table to merit a look.