Studio: Orion Pictures
Director: Osgood Perkins
Writer: Rob Hayes
Producer: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Fred Berger
Stars: Sophia Lillis, Alice Krige, Samuel J. Leakey, Charles Babalola, Jessica De Gouw
Sent away from their home during a time of pestilence, young siblings unknowingly take refuge with a cannibalistic witch.
Unverified ambition turns ¡°Gretel and Hansel¡± into a film whose obsessive artfulness accentuates stylish storytelling almost as much as it simultaneously gets in the way of aesthetic appeal. Few films are this inadvertently skilled at using the same stone to sharpen both sides of a double-edged sword, making for a movie that¡¯s both enchanting and alienating in equal measure.
Start with the bizarre creative choice to film in an outmoded aspect ratio. Tube TVs of yesteryear used to have 4:3 screens until the HD era widened that distance to 16:9. Although European theaters still framed for 1.66:1, 16:9 more closely aligned with the standard U.S. theatrical experience of 1.85:1, which extends to 2.39:1 for widescreen anamorphic movies. Exceptions include 1.4:1 for standard IMAX or 1.9:1 for digital IMAX.
What do all of those numbers have in common? None of them are 1.55:1, which is how ¡°Gretel and Hansel¡± was shot.
Lensing a modern movie in an irrelevant aspect ratio ensures that underprepared projectionists at strip mall multiplexes almost certainly aren¡¯t masking theater screens the way filmmakers intended. It additionally ignores immersive home video setups since no TV, old or new, can play the film properly without putting black bars somewhere onscreen. The 1.55:1 aspect ratio meaninglessly shouts, ¡°hey, look at me, I¡¯m different!¡± while becoming an obtrusive annoyance that benefits no one involved in screening the movie.
The squared frame isn¡¯t even employed for all-around effectiveness, which is where the Pro/Con teeter-totter comes into play again. In some sequences, cinematographer Galo Olivares paints picturesque images of foreboding forests. Towering trees extend from bottom to top, closing in on both sides to create a claustrophobic atmosphere of outdoors that are spookily enveloping.
Far more regularly however, Olivares appears baffled over how to compose for the taller box. Human heads frequently don¡¯t rise higher than dead center, leaving negative space to fill so much of the screen so often, I mentally begged for the camera to tilt down repeatedly. This issue lessens in instances where well-dressed backdrops enrich settings. But because quizzical decisions extend imbalance to production design, actors are more likely to find their faces swimming in a cubed sea of empty walls.
It¡¯s strange how ¡°Gretel and Hansel¡¯s¡± visuals can come off as compellingly eerie one moment, then corner-cuttingly cheap the next. Details are inconsistent in terms of quality. A shelf might be cluttered with eye-catching alchemy knickknacks, for example, while the rest of a background remains barren as though decorators had blown their budget elsewhere. Interior sets thus look like common soundstages constructed by carpenters, not woodland hovels put together with a hand ax.
The film doesn¡¯t seem storyboarded for a square either. On prominent poster art, Alice Krige can be seen as the witch pulling a long knot of hair by extending her hand from her mouth, which is a specifically horizontal action. Conversations are staged where two people lie in adjacent beds or sit next to each other at a table. A more vertical shape continues to make little sense given how panoramic the film¡¯s activities are.
I¡¯ve heard it said that the aspect ratio emulates a storybook quality through its 1.55:1 frame. No child would be drawn in by the drabness of ¡°Gretel and Hansel¡¯s¡± gloomy brown color palette anyway, never mind how little the film does to justify page-like dimensions as a narrative necessity.
What the movie chooses not to depict furthers puzzlement with Oz Perkins¡¯ direction. One scene sees a starving Gretel and Hansel unwittingly eating psychedelic mushrooms pulled from the forest floor. Yet while the siblings stare laughingly at their hands or at something unseen in the sky, we are only shown their faces. Maybe Perkins meant to save the dreamy trips for Gretel¡¯s nightmares of dead children. But the movie still ignores another opportunity to expand its fairy tale world with additional weirdness to offset a stodgy pace.
Anyone can appreciate and/or admire the dread-dripped fable Perkins attempts to create. He wants to transport his audience into an unusual environment from another time and place, to give an elegantly witchy take on a Grimm Brothers tale. To a degree, Perkins keeps us captivated through creepiness, submerging his period piece in a slight sickliness of Satanism with the arthouse accent of an A24 effort.
From another angle, the designs dreamed up in the heads of Perkins and his collaborators don¡¯t always play out as they probably envisioned. The film¡¯s literary leanings force excessive narration to compensate for a lack of characters who could verbalize exposition at each other. To further achieve that ¡°fresh from an old library¡± feel, language swirls into stuffy phrasing like, ¡°for kindness is its own reward, but cruelty is a self-inflicted wound. The wicked earn a living by deception, but the one who plants righteousness gathers a true harvest.¡±
¡°Gretel and Hansel¡± isn¡¯t ¡°Deadwood.¡± Sophia Lillis doesn¡¯t sound at all comfortable with the speaking style. Mentally focused on merely saying the written words, Lillis sounds like she watched a movie based on a Bronte novel and tried mimicking a classic British cadence without incorporating the accent. I¡¯d say the same about Samuel J. Leakey¡¯s stiff line readings as Hansel, except as an eight-year-old newcomer, he¡¯s obviously not an experienced actor, much less a natural one. We know from ¡°It¡± (review here) that Lillis is capable of an empathetic performance. But a script tasking her to either stare sullenly or speak stiltedly doesn¡¯t play to her strengths. Judging by how poorly Charles Babalola fares as a hunter whose dialogue delivery sounds equally soulless, this appears to be another creative idea that looked good on paper, yet came up short in practice.
While the original story may seem suited to his atypical tastes, ¡°Gretel and Hansel¡± doesn¡¯t turn out to be a snug fit for Oz Perkins¡¯ peculiar eye, at least not as a horror movie meant for general consumption. Perkins was once under consideration to helm a ¡°Friday the 13th¡± movie. ¡°Gretel and Hansel¡± serves him better as an audition for ¡°A Nightmare on Elm Street.¡± The psychological textures he travels so confidently in open myriad avenues for exploring odd dreamscapes. With the limitations Perkins was restricted by here however, ¡°Gretel and Hansel¡± becomes more of a mutant experiment that isn¡¯t the fullest use of his imagination.
Review Score: 50