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Fractured fairy tale – ‘Gretel and Hansel’

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There’s a reason that Grimm’s Fairy Tales remain embedded in the cultural consciousness even now, over two centuries since their appearance on the literary scene. So many of those stories, while collected in the early 19th century, sported origins much older – ancient even. They are archetypal and allegorical, framing the good and evil of the world in a manner both fantastical and mundane.

It doesn’t hurt that a lot of them are scary as s—t.

So it makes sense that we would see adaptations of these tales – some direct, some loose, some tangential – for the big screen. There’s a universality to them that appeals, and they lend themselves quite well to cinematic translation. But that same universality also means that it can be hard to figure out what’s going too far and what’s not going far enough.

The new film “Gretel and Hansel,” directed by Oz Perkins from a screenplay by Rob Hayes, suffers from that particular problem – it seems as though the filmmakers are never sure just how far they want to push the envelope, which means that for every challenging, provocative moment, there’s another bit of formulaic boilerplate. The result is a movie that is wildly uneven and never settles into any kind of real groove.

It’s a shame, because there are some good things here. The performances are solid, while the establishing of atmosphere is spot-on. There are a couple of good slow-burn scares as well. Unfortunately, that’s all wound up in a too-thin plot that feels empty despite a sub-90-minute runtime; far too little actually happens here.

Again – moments of excellence, but sadly not enough of them.

Gretel (Sophia Lillis, “It Chapter Two”) and her brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey, TV’s “MotherFatherSon”) have been cast out by their unstable mother. Gretel’s efforts to find a household in which she might work and provide for herself and Hansel prove fruitless; the two are left with no choice but to head into the woods and seek out the foresters, who they hope will provide them a means to survive.

It isn’t long before the combination of hunger and fear has the two seeing and hearing things out there in the forest, jumping at shadows and occasionally seeing mysterious figures in the distance who may or may not really be there. Finally, they stumble upon an isolated cabin, far from any trail or any other trace of civilization. Seeing a resplendently set table, packed with delicious food, they wind up sneaking in.

This is where they encounter the lady of the house, a strange crone of a woman named Holda (Alice Krige, TV’s “Carnival Row”). Holda invites the pair to stay, but it isn’t long before Gretel begins to expect something untoward is happening in this place. Those feelings prove to be prescient and then some, as Gretel and her brother slowly start uncovering the truth about Holda and what really goes on in this cabin in the woods.

And sometimes the truth would prefer to stay buried.

“Gretel and Hansel” is, to put it bluntly, dull. The filmmakers saunter through the plot, traveling at a limited pace; doubtless, the intent is to inflate the thin narrative enough to reach feature length. That inflation leaves significant chunks of the film serving as filler, and while the atmosphere created is good, it’s not nearly enough to completely fill in the gaps. The aesthetic simply can’t bear up to the load it is asked to carry.

Granted, surrounding these stretches of nothing are some legitimately good horror moments, moments that capture the visceral nature of what REALLY scares us about this classic tale. They’re quite good – there’s just not nearly enough of them.

Lillis is an excellent performer, a notable part of the current class of young actors on the come-up, and she shows it here. She’s asked to carry this movie – and she does it. She does it despite the fact that she’s not getting much help from the narrative; she’s able to flesh out her character’s general thinness through sheer presence and force of will. Krige is VERY creepy as Holda, somehow capturing the archetypal fairy tale witch while also endowing the character with a new and different energy. It’s a smart performance by a real pro. Leakey isn’t asked to do much other than be cute and act a little dim; he accomplishes both.

Other than a few single-scene parts, that’s pretty much it (although there is one good performance that I can’t divulge because of spoilers; you’ll know it when you see it). Mostly, it’s up to Lillis and Krige. And they are up to it – it’s just too bad that their work is undercut by other aspects of the storytelling.

“Gretel and Hansel” has some things going for it, including a well-executed atmospheric creepiness and a couple of really good central performances. Unfortunately, the thinness of the plot and the inexplicable unevenness of the pacing are just too much to overcome; the result is a movie that could have been good but winds up simply forgettable.

[2.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 04 February 2020 05:58

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