Courtesy of Orion Picture
Osgood Perkins steps back into the directing chair for the third time with “Gretel & Hansel” - flipping the names in the traditional title. After about the first thirty minutes, you’ll see it wasn’t coincidence of who was more deserving of top billing. The older sister Gretel (Sophia Lillis, “It”) isn’t just allotted a larger role, she’s able to liven a routine fairy tale and give new purpose to the material. Female empowerment for the win. However, the message comes across muddily and the snail pace at which the events move forward left this viewer wanting more. It’s a condensed 90 minute package where the story, which is generally told in a few pages, is stretched to feature length status. But the scenery and atmospheric tensions are noteworthy highlights.
The story begins as all these fairy tales must, with a narration to explain the folklore of the characters. In this case, even if you know the story of “Hansel and Gretel,” you might find a few surprises here, particularly with Gretel leading the charge. Along with her brother Hansel (Sammy Leakey), the two live in a time and place of poverty and sickness. They are kicked to the curb by their mother who can’t take care of them, and are driven into the woods in search of food and shelter. Eventually a detour leads them to the sight of a handsome spread of food inside the house of an old woman, Holda (Alice Krige).
Driven by their growling tummies, Hansel makes a dash for the grub but soon discovers the gentle old woman isn’t startled by their company, in fact she’s happy. The two get their fill, but Gretel begins questioning their host’s motives and secret dwellings, and in true Perkins’ fashion, takes an eerie and slick stroll to the finale. The production design by Jeremy Reed deserves ample credit for the architecture and layout of the gothic house, and Galo Olivares’ cinematography is stunning to view, often filling his frames with creepy shadows lurking in the corridors. I gradually found myself admiring the beauty on display, but not getting caught up or invested in the narrative, which - for the most part - steers the same path as the beloved Grimm fairytale.
“Gretel & Hansel” is within the reigns of a filmmaker who knows what they’re doing, visually, and has an eye for staging an intense showdown or two, she’s also found a plucky and believable heroine in Lillis whose engagement with the material is a satisfying touch in an otherwise hollow narrative frame.