Cheese is about the only food not consumed in the new version of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “Hansel & Gretel,” but cheese is what characterizes this low-budget, lowbrow edition. Pity the children for whom this is their intro to the world of Grimm, for while pic stays to basic outline of the original story in opening and closing sections, the large middle is stuffed with badly staged slapstick and painful stabs at hip dialogue in an arch attempt to cater to modern kids. Item is immediately lost in theatrical woods, but will find some rescue in impending homevid release (care of Warners) where feature’s widescreen image will presumably be letterboxed.
Oft-repeated line full of attitude, “I don’t THINK so!” becomes a verbal sign for everything that’s wrong with the movie, from a cast of TV thesps (Delta Burke, Gerald McRaney, Howie Mandel, Tom Arnold) who appear to be trying to revive vaudeville, to a general jokey tone that couldn’t be further from the Grimms’ mood of danger and portentousness. The reason that the pic uses ultra-2002-style lingo in a medieval magic forest seems to be that a contempo single dad (Dan Roebuck) is reading the fairy tale to his kids Katie (Dakota Fanning) and Andrew (Thomas Curtis), presumably inserting his own wisecracks.
However, director and vet creature makeup artist Gary J. Tunnicliffe doesn’t set up this framework sufficiently, and what at first appears to be a perfectly fine, traditional version of the tale inexplicably turns into an extended skit for Burke as the nasty stepmother of Hansel and Gretel (Jacob Smith, Taylor Momsen). Her near-starving family is nothing more than excuse for her non-stop dissing, despite the calmer approach of McRaney as the father, the rare thesp here who does the story straight.
When the stepmom leads the kids into the foggy magic forest to lose them for good, they’re saved by the first of several completely invented, and fairly ridiculous, characters: the Sandman, played with a lisp by Mandel. The children convince the Sandman to help them get food, and though he does find a place for them to sleep in a swamp (sample joke: “It’s all done up by Bed, Bog and Beyond”), he proves otherwise useless until aided by a Wood Faerie (Alana Austin, who seems better suited for the next generation of “Friends” than a fairy tale).
Further hijinks consume the running time before the main event involving the Witch (played with bravado by Lynn Redgrave). These involve a Boogeyman (Arnold’s voice), a man-eating Troll (Bobcat Goldthwaite, loud as ever) and Burke, who ends up turning the tables on Troll. Pint-sized heroes find themselves drawn to a gingerbread house, designed by the Witch to trap them in prep to eat them (further sample joke: the Witch’s current book is “Children: The Other White Meat”). Before she’s expunged in a whiff of smoke, Redgrave unleashes a few minutes of genuine energy and terror, dressed up in terrific, green-tinted makeup and requisite long, hooked nose.
But things conclude on the same, smart-alecky tone as before. Perfs, except for Redgrave and McRaney, conform to the pseudo-hip form, and suffer for it.
Notably, design, effects and makeup elements don’t fulfill the visual possibilities of the Grimms’ dark-forested environs. Dorian Vernacchio and Deborah Raymond, a terrific L.A.-based theater designer team, create a world that would look fine on stage, but appears plastic and fake on screen. Costuming and scoring are amateurish, and lensing is muddy.