Film reviews and more since 2009

Gretel & Hansel (2020) review

Dir. Osgood “Oz” Perkins

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

It’s always refreshing, albeit rare, when I can see a film and know little to nothing about it. Once in a while, the spirit moves me in such a way that I feel compelled to keep an eye on a film that looks even remotely interesting and try my best to stay away from trailers and other paratext. Just when I was bracing myself for a retread of folklore with misbegotten supernatural elements, Osgood “Oz” Perkins (The Blackcoat’s Daughter) surprised me with a film that puts craftsmanship first. Gretel & Hansel crosses Malickian atmosphere with a Grim(m) fairytale and the result is a studious showcase of a fledgling auteur. The story might be wayward, but at times I was too entrapped to care.

You’re familiar with the age-old story: Hansel and Gretel are poor German children forced out of their home at their ill mother’s command, and they wander in the woods until they happen upon a witch, whose home is a lair of cake and convection. They gorge themselves on the embarrassment of delicious riches until they realize that the witch is planning on cannibalizing both of them. The story ends happy, with both children alive, blessed be. Nonetheless, what a miserable bedtime story.

The transposing of the titular names at hand makes sense, seeing as Gretel (played by Sophia Lillis of It fame) is the primary focus. Set centuries in the past, the film revolves around Gretel, a teenager, and her younger brother Hansel (Sammy Leaky in his film debut), who must fend for themselves when their mother sends them out into the woods when she is dying of famine. The future is bleak for both youngsters; Hansel might be lucky to work as a laborer if he can learn the ways of an axe while Gretel ostensibly would be best to find a husband to serve as her provider.

Gretel and Hansel spend a good portion of the first half of the film wandering. The woods at hand is more unique than anticipated. It’s dry and spacious, occupied by lanky trees that emit light to suggest an outside world, yet enough darkness as if to remind passersby of the looming danger. Eventually, they happen upon a jarring triangular construct. Through the window, Hansel eyes a feast akin to the Last Supper, with pork, bread, and desserts that could last them several days. Both him and Gretel shrug off the suspicious fact that all this food is in a place where there is evidently no nearby vegetation whatsoever. They break in, are greeted by the witch (Alice Krige), and offered the smorgasbord of food as well as a safe haven, if only in theory.

Gretel & Hansel moves glacially along, with some asides prior to the children happening upon the witch’s house. There’s an early sequence involving mushrooms that sets the tone for a disorienting third act that deals with the empowerment of Gretel. Throughout the film, she is shortchanged one way or another by broad generalizations of her sex and forced into the role of a caregiver. Hansel is all she has, at least until she begins to believe what the witch and her abode provide are what she needs to survive, as her grip on reality loosens.

Suffice to say, this is not your average retelling of a story that, just seven years ago, was reworked to turn both Hansel and Gretel into witch hunters. Perkins and co-writer Rob Hayes bring a loftiness to the story that justifies a feature-length runtime. Cinematographer Galo Olivares employs immersive camera angles and a reality-distorting fish-eye lens to enhance the entrapment of the characters, who roam in total isolation only to take refuge in a house of horrors. It’s a far-cry from the cheap jump-scares and derivative locales I was fearful of as I sat down in my seat.

Where Gretel & Hansel stumbles is in its overall story progression. It’s a hodgepodge of concepts and ideas, some of which work to add to the atmosphere and others feel unresolved. Perkins and Olivares’ visuals do much of the heavy lifting when the story sags, both in the flabby second act, or the wrap-up, where Gretel’s motivations come across as blurred and the climax feels underwhelming given the abundance of care and attention that went into the picture’s appearance. There’s plenty here to admire that it’s worthy of a watch, with appropriate expectations. I’ll take different yet imperfect over familiar and limp any day.

My review of Longlegs (2024)

Starring: Sophia Lillis, Sammy Leaky, Alice Krige, and Charles Babalola. Directed by: Osgood “Oz” Perkins.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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