366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.
DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton
FEATURING: Michael Yama, Alison Hong, Andy Lee, Jim Ishida
PLOT: A young brother and sister lost in the woods find sanctuary in a candy-covered house deep in the forest, but the witchy proprietor proves equally dangerous.
COMMENTS: Several years ago, the 366 Weird Movies staff joined forces to debate the relative weirdness of the oeuvre of one Timothy Walter Burton. If one of his kooky gothic fairy tales might be inducted into the canon that had thus far eluded him, then perhaps one of us could make a compelling case for the film most worthy of the honor. (It should come as no surprise: Alfred Eaker’s pick won the day.) But in all that talk, not one of us even mentioned the very first live-action film ever crafted under Burton’s watchful eye. This turns out to be a significant oversight, because this small-scale retelling of a classic fairy tale is a true oddball by just about any yardstick.
One reason “Hansel and Gretel” escaped our critical eye is because the film hardly had any eyes on it at all. It debuted on Halloween night in 1983, airing in the 10:30 p.m. slot on the Disney Channel as part of a special double feature hosted by Vincent Price, paired with Burton’s short animation “Vincent.” After being hidden in this near-invisible time slot, it was then buried even deeper, consigned to the Disney vault to never be seen again, eventually becoming the subject of rumors and doubt as to whether it was even real. Only when it resurfaced as part of a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2009 were true believers rewarded with proof of its strange existence.
So now we have it—and while the story itself is pretty faithful to the version of the tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm (it’s number 327A on the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folklore), a handful of adjustments and adornments make Burton’s retelling unusual. For one thing, the director hired an all-Asian cast, an affectation which is progressive from a cultural-diversity standpoint but suggests a greater purpose that isn’t really explicated in the text. There’s also a stark emptiness to the set, with minimal decor and a hollow sound that suggests a vast soundstage mic’d up with a single boom. Where there is decor, however, it’s very Burton-esque, with toys that appear to have escaped from his animations and curlicue mountains straight out of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The confectionary house of the witch is especially bizarre, with walls and chairs that spurt colorful liquids when touched, and beds with cream-filled comforters that sprout hideous hands in the middle of the night.
Two performances are so eccentric that they make the case for weirdness all by themselves. Michael Yama’s dual-drag turn as both the wicked stepmother and the wicked witch leaves nothing on the table. (Any suggestion that they are one and the same character will only be met with vehement agreement.) Seriously, it’s the kind of performance that might make the contestants on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” tell him to take it down a notch. His stepmother is strictly bitchy, complaining about everything in an angry-Paul-Lynde cadence, greedily devouring hideous-looking food, and punishing the children just because she can. But it’s as the witch that he can really let his freak flag fly, with a candy-cane nose, an arsenal of sweet weapons, and a devilish affect that recalls Looney Tunes’ Witch Hazel. The other notably strange performance is Bam Bam, a misshapen, toothy gingerbread creature (puppeteered by future Pixar scribe Joe Ranft) who sings a parody of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” in an effort to persuade Hansel to eat him.
Hansel and Gretel suffers from a split tonal personality: the hideousness of the villains and Burton’s fondness for grotesque stylings, countered by good-natured innocence in the form of the blandly decent children and especially by Johnny Costa’s score, which feels exactly like his most famous work, the soothing tinkly piano stylings that underscored nearly three decades of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” As a fairy tale adaptation, it’s just okay. It works far better as a historical curiosity, a piece of juvenilia that Burton had to get past in order to realize his vision on a bigger scale. But it’s instructive to see his technique before the edges started to get sanded away, when skill and budget were the only things limiting his creativity.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“I understand why Disney canned this thing after one airing. It’s not even so much that it’s too scary, but it’s just weird. Everything after Hansel and Gretel enter the witch’s house is just one strange creative decision after another… I have no clue if Burton wasn’t given enough money to work with, or was under the influence of some very strong hallucinogens, but this is truly bizarre and unprofessional. It’s easily the weirdest thing I’ve seen yet.”–Collin, Movie Match-Up
(This movie was nominated for review by Ari Srabstein, who dubbed it “a very strange and fascinating film in my opinion and truly unique.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)