It seems January has gone from being studios' dumping ground for their least trustworthy, and often worst, releases to adopting a new specialty: resurrection. Several pieces of intellectual property that haven't graced the cineplex in ages had a chance at new life this month, including the "Bad Boys" franchise and Doctor Dolittle, though to be fair, "Dolittle" is traditional January trash if I've ever seen it.
Osgood Perkins' reverse-titled take on the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale "Hansel & Gretel" is perhaps the most curious cinematic retelling to come out of January. For one, it's a task to remember the last time the story was translated to the screen, in serious fashion at least — 2013's "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" is, by all accounts, atrociously and shamelessly silly.
"Gretel & Hansel" seems to have the opposite problem: It pompously flaunts its top-notch production values and dour tone to cover the fact that it is, at its core, embarrassingly insubstantial. Perkins' film is, as its title suggests, largely partial to Gretel (Sophia Lillis) and is mostly told through her eyes, but sumptuous, Ingmar Bergman-inspired visuals and a hypnotic score from Robin Coudert can't distract from the heroine's sore lack of true development, or interesting characterization for that matter.
Aside from zeroing in on Lillis' character — she's perfectly fine in the role, by the way — the story's general premise remains familiar. She and her little brother (Sammy Leakey), desperate for work in a time of great famine, venture into the woods hoping to find paid labor, only to come across the home of an uneasy old woman (a suitably creepy Alice Krige) who entices them with meats and treats aplenty. Given the original tale's ubiquity, it's no spoiler to say this woman is a child-butchering witch, but her means of doing so are even more gruesome than you remember, and her relationship to Gretel is more mentor-mentee than predator-prey.
From this dynamic stem numerous droning conversations about "the big bad world" that are too cryptic and stilted to come off as anything other than frustratingly vague and pretentious. Maybe a compelling message about gender inequality or female empowerment lies beneath all the pedantry, but if it does, neither average nor hyper-attentive moviegoers are likely to identify it. Even the filmmakers seem to have picked up on this improbability, injecting narration from Lillis all over the place in an attempt to explain the story's character beats and arcane imagery — and even that ends up alienating.
"Gretel & Hansel" has all the makings of a future cult hit: memorable visuals, enigmatic dialogue and the capacity to leave viewers utterly befuddled on the first go-round. Maybe some who give it a watch will want to return to it later, eager to dig into its hazy underpinnings. But even then, the search is unlikely to yield anything satisfying.
John Battiston is a Times-Mirror reporter and founder of the Reel Underdogs podcast. Contact him at email@example.com. Reel Underdogs is not affiliated with the Times-Mirror.