Review: ‘Gretel & Hansel,’ starring Sophia Lillis, Sammy Leakey and Alice Krige

January 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sophia Lillis in "Gretel & Hansel"
Sophia Lillis in “Gretel & Hansel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures)

“Gretel & Hansel”

Directed by Osgood “Oz” Perkins

Culture Representation: The predominantly white cast of characters live in a fictional fantasy world from the ancient past, mostly depicting the working class and poor members of that society.

Culture Clash: Two underage runaway siblings find themselves staying at the house of an evil witch, who doesn’t want them to leave.

Culture Audience: “Gretel & Hansel” will appeal mostly to horror fans or people who like to see movie adaptations of classic fairly tales, but this movie’s uninspiring and weak story will surely disappoint most viewers.

Alice Krige in “Gretel & Hansel” (Photo by Patrick Redmond/Orion Pictures)

Just like a witch’s spell that makes something rotten appear to be enticing, “Gretel & Hansel” is a horror movie that looks visually thrilling, but it’s really an ugly mess. The movie is a reimagining of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” (published in 1812 in Germany), but the movie’s ludicrous plot twists have very little resemblance to the original story. (The movie’s log line is “A Grim Fairy Tale,” a cheeky nod to the origin story.)

The core concept of “Hansel and Gretel” is still in the movie—a homeless young brother and sister try to survive by themselves in the woods when they are enticed into a house owned by a cannibalistic witch. But in this botched attempt to make “Gretel & Hansel” a dark feminist tale, director Osgood “Oz” Perkins and screenwriter Rob Hayes have put too much emphasis on style over substance, and they’ve sacrificed story development for gory scares that come too little, too late in the film. The hypnotic cinematography from Galo Olivares is the best thing about this dreadfully dull movie.

There are so many things wrong with “Gretel & Hansel” that the movie should be used as an example of what not to do in adapting a classic fairly tale into a movie. Sophia Lillis, who plays a teenage Gretel, is usually very talented—for now, she’s best known for being the token girl in the “It” movies—but she’s unfortunately miscast in this movie. Lillis definitely comes across as too modern for the role—and having a pixie haircut doesn’t make her a convincing Gretel—because she keeps her American accent and contemporary teenage mannerisms in a film that’s supposed to take place in a time long before the United States ever existed.

Meanwhile, Sammy Leakey who plays Greta’s brother Hansel (who’s about 7 to 9 years old) has a British accent, and the old, evil witch Holda (played by Alice Krige) has an accent that sounds like a mixture of Irish and Krige’s native South African. This hodgepodge of international accents is very distracting and ultimately a detriment to this movie that’s supposed to convey a very insular world.

It’s not as if all the characters should have had a German accent or even the same accent for the entire cast. It’s just lazy filmmaking for the movie’s two siblings, who grew up together, to have accents from two different countries. Lillis seems like a good-enough actress to at least try to have a British accent to match the Hansel character in the movie. As for Leakey’s acting skills, let’s just say that “Gretel & Hansel” was a very lucky break for him indeed.

“Gretel & Hansel” does not have a kindly father, who plays a crucial role in the original fairy tale. Instead, the siblings’ uncaring mother (whose has a British accent) is single and impoverished, and willing to prostitute Gretel out to a sleazy old man, who pretends to want to hire Gretel as a maid. After he makes it clear what his intentions are when he asks Gretel if she’s still “intact” (in other words, if she’s still a virgin), Gretel runs away and tells her mother, who scolds her for not doing what the man wanted for money. (That sexual-harassment subplot is definitely not in the original fairy tale.) Her mother resents Gretel for taking up space and threatens to send her to a convent. Gretel refuses to go because it would mean that she would be separated from Hansel.

Gretel then decides to runs away with Hansel, and they end up sleeping in what they think is an empty castle. But the castle owner (another creepy old man) shocks them out of their sleep and chases after them with murderous intent. He’s killed by a mystical character called The Hunter (played by Charles Babalola), a bow-and-arrow-slinging nomad, who kindly takes in Gretel and Hansel by giving them food and a temporary place to stay.

Gretel has been taught by her mother that people who show generosity will expect something in return, so Gretel is surprised when The Hunter doesn’t expect the siblings to repay his kindness. Instead, he advises Gretel and Hansel to offer their work services to the townspeople. He suggests that Hansel become a forester by developing tree-chopping skills, and Gretel could do traditional women’s work of harvesting and preparing food. The movie wants us to believe that Gretel is a smart and empowered feminist in the making (her interactions with Hansel are basically her telling him what to do and him questioning her), but her later actions in the story make you question her intelligence and leadership skills.

There are also a few quirks in “Gretel & Hansel” that don’t really fit with the foreboding atmosphere that is supposed to be portrayed. One of these quirks is the oddball way that characters in the movie make pig-snorting sounds as a sign of affection. Hansel and Gretel do this with each other, and then later the witch Holda does it too, as a way of trying to bond with the kids. It’s a weird component to the film that seems like a misguided attempt at humor.

Another thing that takes you out of the movie is when Holda drops a glass, which breaks on the floor, and she somewhat chuckles and utters something like, “Oh, well. Another one bites the dust.” Although the rock band Queen might be amused that this ancient witch namechecked a phrase their hit song made famous in pop culture, it’s an example of how awkward the writing is for this movie.

Another out-of-left-field moment happens when, after Gretel and Hansel leave The Hunter and before they see the witch’s house, the two siblings are wandering around while starving in the woods, and they eat mushrooms that turn out to be psychedelic. For about five minutes of the movie, people have to sit through a scene of two children having a drug trip. It’s played for laughs, and it’s an unnecessary scene that throws the apprehensive tone of the film a little off-balance.

Before they get to the witch’s house, Gretel sees some shadowy figures that look like witches in the distance. And a flashback backstory is shown about a girl from the past who was demonized by the townspeople for her magical powers, which include killing a cow just by staring at it. By the time Hansel and Gretel get to the witch’s house, you want some real horror to happen. Just like in the original fairy tale, a starving Hansel and Gretel go into the house when they see a lavish meal prepared on the table.

The witch who lives there startles them and keeps them there by offering them a place to stay and sumptuous meals every day. Gretel is automatically suspicious because she doesn’t see how the food is prepared and where it’s coming from—there’s plenty of meat and milk, but no cows or other animals on the property—but she stays because the food is too tempting and she doesn’t know where else to go. Meanwhile, Gretel keeps having visions of being in a room with a young witch (who looks less like an ancient witch and more like a Goth who just came from a Marilyn Manson concert) in a room where there’s a bloody tablecloth—and you can guess what’s underneath.

But “Gretel & Hansel” commits the worst sin of all for a horror movie: There are long stretches where nothing much happens except the protagonists (in this case, Hansel and Gretel) looking anxious or confused. Gretel has nightmares that are made to look like the events are happening in real time, but then you find out it was only a dream when she’s startled out of her sleep. This gimmick might be acceptable one time in a movie, but when it keeps happening in this type of horror flick, viewers’ patience will start to wear thin.

As the evil witch Holda, actress Krige oozes hellish decay and malevolence, even when Holda tries to appear maternal and protective. And truth be told, Holda is the one who has the most personality in the whole movie. Unfortunately, Gretel in this film is written as a monotonous shell of a person who thinks she’s smart, but she keeps making dumb decisions. (Hansel can’t be blamed for much because he’s too young to know better.)

The cinematography and production design for the movie are interesting, in that the witch’s house isn’t a complete stereotype of being musty and filled with spiderwebs. Most of the house’s interior is dark, but clean and bathed in a dark golden glow. There’s also a room that is entirely in white, to contrast with some very disturbing and bloody things that happen in that room. And Holda’s and other witches’ fingertips look like they were dipped in black paint, which is an aesthetic that isn’t really seen in movies with witch characters.

But all of those eye-catching motifs don’t mean much when the story and characters are nonsensical and tedious. For example, Gretel finds out at some point in the story that she has a specific power, which she doesn’t use until it’s almost too late. There’s no point in trying to make sense of this movie, because it doesn’t have a story or character worth caring about or remembering long after you’ve seen it.

Orion Pictures will release “Gretel & Hansel” in U.S. cinemas on January 31, 2020.