We all know Hansel & Gretel, whether it’s from a television parody, a Grimm fairytale, or even that movie with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton – yes, that one. Adapting a story so well known in pop culture is a massive undertaking. But when the title alone symbolizes a retelling meant to shake up the story we know well, that undertaking becomes massive. Thankfully, director Osgood Perkins and writer Rob Hayes have paired to turn a familiar fairytale into a hyper-stylized dark vision that does more than tell a story of a child-eating witch with Gretel & Hansel.
A grim fairytale, Gretel & Hansel offers up a slim and diverse cast set in an empty fairytale countryside. Opening with the narration of a story of a little girl in a pink hat, the film immediately pushes you into a world of dark wonder as we see the events that have created a fear of the woods and the event that has pushed the titular pair into the heart of that terror. In desperate search of food and work, Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and Hansel (Samuel Leakey) have nothing but each other. After stumbling through the woods, finding a kind stranger, and an eerie terror, they come to a house. Big, modern, and out of place in the world, the Witch’s cabin stands as a mesmerizing omen, one the audience knows means danger, and one Gretel believes to be as well.
While the story hits every beat you expect it to, Gretel & Hansel is also a coming-of-age story for young Gretel. As the siblings meet magic, Gretel meets a path to her future and as she stares into the nexus of evil, she must make a choice. It’s this makes Lillis’ performance so powerful. Strongwilled with action in her bones, Gretel knows the world more than she should. A mother to her brother, even when their actual mother is still in the picture, and burdened with responsibility. She meets it head-on and lets us know through her narration that she knows that gifts always come at a price.
But the beauty in Lillis’ portrayal of Gretel is that she is dynamic in a role that oscillates between a fascinated teen girl and a loving sister who has had to be a rock for her brother, who is almost like a son. The ability for her to be both too old for her age and yet exactly what makes her a commanding presence on the screen, especially when balanced with newcomer Samuel Leakey‘s portrayal of innocent Hansel. As a little brother, he’s just the right mix of annoying and dependent while also not snapping you out of the narrative. He hangs on Gretel’s every word, even when it can cause him harm.
That said, it’s Alice Krige as Holda, who viewers will know as the Witch, who truly steals the show. She’s terrifying, she’s caring, and there is just the right amounts of motherhood and apathy. In her scenes with Gretel, she plays a mentor. A woman who sees the power in the young woman sitting before her, teaching her, luring her in, and while we know the ending to the fairytale, Gretel & Hansel offers up much more depth by giving the audience a full story that builds out its female characters.
That said, Krige’s visual performance, including the scene featured on all of the marketing material, is both terrifying and enchanting in the darkest of ways. With sharpened teeth, bloodied eyes, and wearing all black, fac gaunt, and white with lips to match, she is a force on screen. The transformation that Krige underwent to achieve her menacing look is astounding. Add in her void black fingers and everything about her costuming and make-up have created a crone that will be entering the halls of horror memory, framed there as both haunting and menacing with a smile.
But the costuming and makeup isn’t the only bit of visuals that stick out. Like many noted in the trailer, the geometry throughout the film and the stark contrast in scenery against cabin stick with you. Every table, every beam of light, and every piece of nature and building have been used to create a masterpiece in visual storytelling. Perkins’ has crafted a beautiful film that breathes in whimsy and exhales fear. From a woman in black on a hill, to the Witch’s black fingers pulling a strand of completely dry hair from her mouth, to dolls stuffed between rocks like grout, every inch of the screen is used to tell this fairytale and almost every still can be taken and put on canvas.
Additionally, Gretel & Hansel takes inspiration from famed Chilean director Alexandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain, using imagery that fans of that film will notice right away, most specifically in some of the Witch’s costuming. When all is said and done Gretel & Hansel is a visual feast, one I can’t get enough of. It’s unsettling, uncanny, and whimsical all in one. This is elevated by the film’s sound design which peppers in sounds that make you cringe, hands in a salve, blade scraping blade, and jolts you with a human-made pig snort that though meant to be a special handshake between the family rings eerie in its use. Weaving in the sounds of strings being plucked, high cords ringing, the score comes in shrill to shake you before it flows into a synthwave moment at climaxing points.
Now, there are some small issues with the film, namely the overuse of narration in moments that could have used silence. Instead of trusting his audience to feel the weight of emotion in some scenes, Gretel narrates it. While this works in some moments, in others, I was pulled into the moment, absorbed by it, until a voice cut into the scene, removing a sense of magic and replacing it with exposition.
Overall, Gretel & Hansel is everything I wanted from this grim undertaking. It was both everything that I expected and something from Perkins and Hayer that subverted the ideas I had going in. The basic plot is there, two kids go into the woods, the children meet a witch, and the witch tries to eat them. That said, there are additions and moments in the film, particularly in the ending that layer many new ideas to the story that make it feel like a new myth all on its own. Truly, the blending of contemporary with folkloric makes for a film that feels old, new, and timeless all at once.
Gretel & Hansel opens nationwide January 31st.
Gretel & Hansel
Gretel & Hansel is everything I wanted from this grim undertaking. It was both everything that I expected and something from Perkins and Hayer that subverted the ideas I had going in.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.