Hansel and Gretel is a classic fairy tale we all think we know. A brother and sister get lost in the woods. They get hungry. They find a house made of candy and eat their fill. Too late, they discover the house is the home of a witch who tries to cook them for her dinner. They turn the tables on the witch at the last moment and she is the one that ends up in the oven instead. GRETEL AND HANSEL is something a bit different…
When you buy a ticket to director Oz Perkins’ film adaptation of said classic tale you are in store for a huge surprise but by no means a disappointment. Perkins’ film is retitled Gretel and Hansel, and the reason for this revision has a lot more to it than a simple name reversal. By the end of it, Perkins his cast and crew have flipped everything about the story, from the basic plot to the much deeper meaning that all fables contain.
Although Gretel and Hansel is revolutionary, the path to this revolution that takes a long time to ignite on the screen. The pacing of the film, especially in the first half, is slow. Very slow. Slow and dark, not just in theme but literally. Perkins and cinematographer Galo Olivares use a decidedly autumnal…OK, brown…palette to paint their picture and it may take a while for your eyes to adjust to it. The acting, particularly of Sophia Lillis (It) as Gretel, feels equally subdued, almost to the point of distraction.
But just give it time. Not only with the last half of Gretel and Hansel pay off handsomely, but any questions you have about palette choices or pacing will be answered, if not by the end of the film, then by the end of the drive home which you will spend thinking about the film. Any further questions or issues can wait for the second time you see the film because Gretel and Hansel deserves a second viewing.
But what is all the fuss about? What makes Gretel and Hansel so revolutionary? Where does one begin…
First of all, Gretel and Hansel may be the title, but this is not the story of two innocents being lead into the woods away from their evil stepmother by their henpecked father. These siblings are forced out by an abusive widowed mother, who makes it clear that have to leave or she will literally chop them to pieces with an ax. So this Gretel and her younger brother Hansel are running for their lives into a world that they have absolutely no experience with. There is palpable desperation to these children that goes beyond what you may get from reading the original folktale.
Secondly, it is clear from the start that Gretel is the leader of this two-dog pack. She is older, smarter and, as we will see, gifted in ways her brother is not. He just wants to grow up to be a woodchopper; she is ready to fight to make sure they grow up at all.
And then there’s the old woman whose house they eat. Wikipedia calls her “a cannibalistic witch living in a forest in a house constructed of gingerbread, cake, confection, candy, and many other treats” In Gretel and Hansel, she goes by then name Holda and is brought to three-dimensional life through a fascinating performance by Alice Krige (Silent Hill). In other words, she’s a person, not just a misogynistic stereotype fashioned out of fear. Sure, she does some bad things…you do NOT want to accept an invitation to watch her prepare her meals…but there is a reason behind it all. There is also a reason behind the bond that develops between Holda and Gretel and that reason, developed throughout the film to its satisfying climax, is what really makes this particular telling of the tale of Gretel and Hansel far surpass any that have come before it.
But what if you don’t care — or aren’t willing to try to care — about the underlying importance of this movie? Can you just go see Gretel and Hansel to be entertained? Definitely, but with some guidance.
Don’t worry about the slowness of the pacing. The more you relax, the more Perkins and his crafty crew can weave their webs under your skin. And if the film looks too dark and all that brown starts to wear at you, just keep your eyes peeled for the colors when they do burst through. They will all mean something in the end.
And, if even that little bit of effort seems too much, then just hang on to the part when Gretel breaks through the door that leads to the basement of Holda’s home, the room where, quite literally, all the magic happens and all her secrets are revealed. It’s awesome! It is in that basement room, too, that Perkins finally releases the horror behind Gretel and Hansel and he does it with both style and substance. And it’s absolutely worth the wait.
And, then, there is the end of the movie, the few exquisite moments after the basement scene where the themes of the movie join together for a moment that is almost as thrilling as the gore you just witnessed. And, although it almost plays like a denouement designed to set up a sequel, it feels much more like the most satisfying conclusion possible to this character’s journey. Gretel may go on to be the center of other stories, and we’ll be there opening day, but it’s enough this time to know she not only survived but to witness how she thrived at the end.
- John Black, Gretel and Hansel