Written by 19th century German authors Jakob and Wilhelm, together known as Brothers Grimm, Grimm’s Fairy Tales are best recognized as Disney’s kid-friendly adaptations such as Snow White and Cinderella. However, the dark folklore and myths from which these stories originate once served a much different purpose. With violent twists and unhappy endings, these tales were used to caution of menacing threats lurking in a world full of uncertainty. In his recent theatrical release of Gretel & Hansel, director Oz Perkins (I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House) takes us back to these dangerous times when food was scarce and survival was bleak.
Delivering a similarly brave, unwavering performance seen in the two-part blockbuster, IT, Sophia Lillis returns to horror proving herself, once again, as a young heroine against extraordinary odds. Only this time, she is not Beverly Marsh facing off against a killer clown. She is a young girl named Gretel who must protect her little brother Hansel (Samuel Leakey) as they fight for survival.
Thrown from their foodless home by their starvation crazed mother, the siblings make their way into the unknown searching for work, food and shelter in a desolate, hopeless world that lays before them. This leads to an attack by a deranged drifter who’s half-dead in appearance, an encounter with magic mushrooms and dreadful shadowy figures that keep their distance.
Seemingly taking cues from Robert Eggers’ 2015 award-winning feature The Witch, Gretel & Hansel unravels at a slow atmospheric pace driven by an alluring dark mystical feel of the occult … something that you would expect from an original Grimm’s fairy tale. However, the film begins to lose footing soon after Gretel and Hansel stumble onto a secluded cottage with a smorgasbord of fresh food and an old woman named Holda (Alice Krige: Star Trek: First Contact, Thor: The Dark World).
Anyone familiar with the Hansel and Gretel story knows what comes next. The old woman is revealed to be a witch deceiving the children with her hospitality. After the siblings stuff themselves to their heart’s content, the witch locks them up to be forced fed like livestock and cooked as a meal. But Perkins takes this tale a new direction.
Avoiding predictability, which is welcome whenever it’s done well, Holda is fascinated with Gretel seeing something of herself in the young girl. Becoming a mentor of sorts, this hostess shows Gretel how this world can be hers if she chooses to reach out and take it.
Although enchanting, this plot progression is where Gretel & Hansel begins to lose focus. Shifting to and from Gretel’s pseudo mother role, a surprising discovery of dark magic, Hansel’s fascination with becoming a woodsman, Holda’s backstory and the villain’s true intentions, the film’s structure nearly falls apart. In danger of becoming a convoluted mess, it is Krige’s performance that holds this story plot together. With some help from Jessica De Gouw (Dracula Tv series) portraying a young version of Holda, the balance between friend and foe is executed with perfection. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to build the level of suspense necessary for the final climactic confrontation, which could have been so much more.
As the furnace cools and the dust settles, we are left with an incredible character arch and a twist that hints at the possibility of an intriguing sequel. Could this be the beginning of a Grimm’s fairy tale universe? Strangely enough, I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea.
Despite nearly losing itself in its side-plot juggling act, Perkins’ efforts brings to life the world that birthed these fairy tales. With a strong cast complimented by eerily bewitching imagery, both dreadful and otherworldly, a sense of desperation and despair is captured with a mysterious, mystical glimmer of hope peeking through the cracks. While it will not leave much of a mark in cinematic history, Gretel & Hansel is a spellbinding gem strongly rooted in origin from a time long since passed.