Review: Dreamlike Gretel & Hansel (2020) Lulls Audiences Into a Beautiful, Yet Dull Nightmare
Sneaking into theaters the last day in January, Osgood Perkins’ Gretel & Hansel made little noise at the box office. Taking a more modern approach to the classic fairytale, Gretel & Hansel sees the titular youngsters cross paths with an elderly woman who offers them food and shelter in exchange for work. Over time, the children start to suspect something is amiss and it is revealed that the woman is a witch with sinister yet differing intentions for the two siblings.
Gretel & Hansel is an absolute treat of a film from a visual perspective. Perkins really sells us on the setting, warping the environment to feel straight out of a storybook. Monsters ooze pus, trees bend and gnarl sharply, and hole towns appear desolate. It creates an atmosphere of isolation and dread, while still crafting a world of dark whimsy and wonder. The use of light and color also elevates the tale to greater heights. The use of red neon light during a dreamlike night sequence was equal parts creepy and saddening. It simultaneously represented the fear of Hansel and the rage of Gretel as they argued over leaving the witch’s home, right before Gretel decides to leave Hansel by himself in the woods. It was a very powerful scene in an otherwise sedated movie.
A potential high point of Gretel & Hansel, which I wish Perkins explored further, was the relationship between the witch and Gretel. It is made clear that Gretel’s journey into womanhood is the over-arching story really being told. She’s not offered a job because she refuses to have sex with her employer, she’s kicked out of her house and expected to care for her little brother, and she finally has her first period. I am not saying any of this is subtle or even good. I think in the hands of a woman director or writer this could have been explored better. At the end of the day, it is a serviceable attempt to interweave themes of womanhood and adulthood into a movie that could catch fire with certain younger audiences.
While stylistically Gretel & Hansel feels inspired, it falls a little short in providing much substance for its audience members. While only clocking it at a measly 87 minutes, it felt like a much longer test of endurance. Gretel & Hansel is stuffed with many beautiful and haunting images, but often these sights and misadventures often lead to much of nothing. Glimpses of shadowy figures in the forest, psychedelic mushroom trips, evil manifesting itself in the shape of a cloaked woman, are all brought up once or twice only to be left without any explanation or follow up afterward. It is frustrating as an audience member to see so many engaging visuals amount to little in terms of plot progression.
Gretel & Hansel realistically would have been a much better fit for a streaming service than a traditional movie theater. Its arthouse style and limited appeal to a broad demographic will probably sink any hopes of a blowout box office run, but it will make money thanks to its rather low budget. If you are looking for a sweet slice of macabre fantasy that is light on scares and story but rich in subtext, Gretel & Hansel might be for you.
Overall Score? 6/10