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“Nibble, nibble, little mouse, who’s that nibbling at my house?”
– The Witch, before showing her claws
Hey, the chimney smoke is in the shape of the Witch, I never noticed that until now…
Oh yes, the review.
It’s easy to forget that fairytales weren’t written exclusively for children all those centuries ago. They were recorded with the intention of preserving cultural heritage passed down orally that was on the brink of being lost. While the Brothers Grimm would later re-edit their findings for a younger, more conservative audience, the German folklore they published had no shortage of, ahem, grimness in their pages. This was due in large part to how awful living conditions were in the Middle Ages. It was an era of deadly plagues, drastic income inequality, wisdom and progress continuously curtailed by superstition and theocracy, human rights perpetually being violated, and the constant threat of war and death hanging over people’s heads.
Ah, sure glad we don’t have to deal with all that in these enlightened times.
When it comes to the origins of today’s tale, scholars tend to point towards a massive famine that overtook Europe in the early fourteenth century. Families would turn elder and younger members out of their homes in order to hoard whatever food was left for themselves; there’s even been reports of people resorting to cannibalism. Combine all that with folks’ fear of witches and the unknown lurking in the woods, and you’ve got the ingredients for a deliciously dark story. Even Jacob and Wilhelm, with their penchant for revisionism, couldn’t curb Hansel and Gretel’s eerie undertones. The only major edit they made later on was changing the mother who threw her children to the proverbial wolves into a wicked stepmother; trust me, I’ll have more to say about that when we get to Snow White.
Now there’s a lot one could unpack with Hansel and Gretel and the deeper significance of the motifs it shares with other fairy tales: the forest serving as both sanctuary and no man’s land, the two faces of the mother and witch belonging to the same patriarchal grotesque, the sanctity of the home and how choosing familial loyalty over independence leads to a just reward, but let’s instead focus on the children themselves. Hansel and Gretel’s journey is symbolic of a child’s rocky passage to adulthood, and how they must rely on their wits to survive a cruel world beyond their doorstep. Similar stories of children undergoing a transformative odyssey through the wilderness into maturity can be found in every culture around the world, from Southern India (Kadar and Cannibals) to South Africa (The Story of the Bird that Made Milk). Certain Russian folktales involve a girl cast out into the woods by her cruel stepmother and traveling to a chicken-legged house belonging to the cannibalistic witch Baba Yaga. She completes the impossible tasks the witch sets for her by being kind to the animals, makes a daring escape using the gifts she’s earned, and returns home, ending her stepmother’s reign of terror. Sound familiar? Even Italian author Giambatta Basile, originator of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, created his own take on the fable. Nennillo e Nennella starts off with the usual parental abandonment in the woodlands, but goes off the rails into royalty, piracy and some Jonah and the Whale-type shenanigans (seriously, read this one, it’s a hoot). And it doesn’t stop at the written word, either. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the seventh entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, explicitly weaves the story of Hansel and Gretel into its themes as part of Craven’s efforts to return to the series back to its terrifying, more serious fantasy origins. The iconic thriller Night of the Hunter also has shades of Hansel and Gretel: two children are forced out of their home by their stepparent and find shelter in the Depression-blighted countryside with an old crone; the twist is the crone becomes their selfless protector.
The point I’m trying to make is, when done right, this fairy tale can be a rich, emotional experience, a dark but thrilling and ultimately triumphant roller coaster ride that captures a child’s view of the world in all its terror and wonder.
And Faerie Tale Theatre…it doesn’t do it right. It hardly comes close, for a number of reasons. But if you like to plod through long depressing morality plays that consistently thrash you over the head with its mean-spiritedness and bleak atmosphere, then this is the outing for you.
The episode’s mood is set right off the bat as we see our young protagonists chased out of their house and beaten with a broom by their evil stepmother (Joan Collins). Left alone, the children lament the death of their birth mother, and how a famine devastating the land means there’s little food to go around and small chance of their father, a poor woodcutter, bringing home fat stacks of cash. Hansel and Gretel are played by Ricky Schroder and Bridgette Andersen respectively. Now I know what you’re thinking, two young child stars reaching the height of their fame in the 1980s…so which was it, drugs or alcohol? Tragically, it was drugs for Andersen; she passed away at only twenty-one years old from an opioid overdose. Schroder, on the other hand, fell out of the public eye to the point where I, like many others, assumed he died from drugs too – then he routinely harassed essential workers for wearing masks, openly supported the anti-vaxxer truck blockade at the Canadian border, and defended and bailed out violently racist murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, and now it’s safe to say most people wish he was done in by narcotics. Hansel cheers Gretel up by telling stories of how beautiful and kind their first mother was.
Then their father returns home. In stark contrast to their stepmother, he is sweet and gentle. You have to wonder how he (and most fairytale fathers in this kind of situation) got suckered into marrying such an unpleasant woman. Most evil stepmothers I’ve seen at least attempt to mask their cruelty and disdain for the children when the father is around. Collins’ stepmother doesn’t hide how awful she is, even insulting her husband to his face multiple times and manipulating him using every trick in the gaslighter playbook.
As the family lie in their beds, hardly able to sleep from hunger pains, the father tells his wife that there’s only half a loaf of bread left to share among them. After that, it’s likely they’ll starve. While he worries about how to support his children, the stepmother pouts over her own survival. Hansel and Gretel listen in as she unveils her wicked plan: they’ll take the children into the forest under the pretense of gathering wood and abandon them there, leaving more food for the two of them. The father is rightfully appalled at the idea, insists he’d never do such a thing and shuts her down good.
But then the stepmother turns on the sweetness, saying she only meant that they would leave them for someone much better off to find and support them; besides, they could always have more kids once the famine is over, maybe even make one tonight if he’s up for it. And just like that, the father’s love for his children is immediately quashed by his raging stiffie and he agrees to go along with her scheme.
Needless to say, Hansel and Gretel are very concerned for their safety. Once their parents fall asleep, Hansel ventures out of the cabin and returns with his hat full of bright and shiny pebbles. As the stepmother leads them into the woods the next morning, he drops one every few feet. The father builds them a fire, and leaves with the stepmother, looking like the sorry whipped hound he is.
Hansel and Gretel wait the whole day long for them to return, comforted by the sound of their father chopping wood not far away. When it’s finally dark, they get up and look for him only to discover that the noise was really a pendulum he set up to hit a tree trunk every few seconds.
Luckily the children follow the pebbles Hansel dropped before Mr. Vorhees can add two more notches to his machete. They return home just as their father is about to have “I’ve-left-my-only-children-to-their-foreseeable-deaths-so-I-can-get-it-on-with-my-redheaded-shrew” sex (the best kind of sex there is). He’s happy to see them alive and well; the stepmother, not so much. That night in bed she goes on a loud tearful rant about how his thoughtfulness will to lead to her slow and painful death. Her husband okays Operation: Brats-Be-Gone 2.0 just to shut her up.
Hansel attempts to sneak out and recollect the stones, but the door is locked this time. The following morning he resorts to leaving a trail of breadcrumbs from a slice of bread the stepmother gives him for lunch. But pigeons eat the breadcrumbs, effectively stranding him and Gretel even deeper in the forest. The children wander for a long, long time in the dark amongst the ominous howls of wild, hungry animals. They survive to the morning where they have to risk eating possibly poisonous berries to stave off their starvation for that much longer. And thus they continue their hopeless wandering, remarking all the while about how dire their situation is. This is worse than what Thorin’s company had to go through in Mirkwood, and they had to deal with giant spiders on top of everything else. The problem isn’t that it’s too dark; this wouldn’t be a good Hansel and Gretel if it wasn’t dark. No, my issue is that it wallows in its misery as if it were Mr. Burns wallowing in his crapulence. There are just too many stretches of these damn wiener kids complaining and wondering how soon it will be until they die unless they find some food, and if they were left to their fates because they weren’t good enough, and praying to God for a miracle (good grief, there is so much praying and talk of “God will provide for us” in this outing that you will want to turn atheist if you haven’t already). We get it, kids, your parents abandoned you like Daniel Day-Lewis abandoned his boy and you’re lost and starving and this close to dying, MOVE ON ALREADY.
After god knows how long, Hansel points out a white dove watching them in the trees.
The dove leads Hansel and Gretel to a sight too good to be true: a house made out of sweets with a gingerbread cookie fence. The children get to munching without a thought towards whomever owns the place; not the smartest choice, since it belongs to a witch.
Though it’s not easy to discern under all that makeup, that is indeed Joan Collins doubling as The Witch – and it is brilliant. For starters, Collins’ over-the-top playing to the cheap seats is extremely welcome after the depression that was the past half-hour. More importantly, it gives this Witch strong symbolic ties to the Stepmother and to several variations of Hansel and Gretel from the past. Some versions of the aforementioned Baba Yaga stories have the stepmother order the heroine to visit a relative of hers (usually a grandmother or sister) to run some errands, but it turns out she’s sending her to Baba Yaga in the hopes that she gets eaten; whether or not the stepmother is actually related to the old witch depends on what tale you’re reading. Some folklorists have even theorized that the witch and stepmother are one and the same, wearing different guises as needed to torment her wards. With those interpretations in mind, Collins’ dual-casting takes on a greater significance. The source of Hansel and Gretel’s suffering always comes back to the same woman who’s willing to sacrifice their young, promising lives in order to prolong her own miserable one.
The Witch puts on an air of kindness and invites the kids in with the promise of a full meal and soft bed, all while planning on eating them in the meantime. The next morning, she locks Hansel in a human-sized rabbit hutch. She forces Gretel to work for her and help fatten her brother up. Hansel is safe from the chopping block today because the Witch is planning on killing and cooking a different chubby boy sharing his prison. We see her pulling that poor kid away and hear him screaming as smoke pours out of the chimney so yes, this is a witch who means business.
Hansel insists he won’t eat anything the Witch gives him. But if he gives his food to Gretel, then the Witch will most likely devour her instead. So they split the food evenly and eat only what they need to survive, right?
No, Hansel, even after going weeks without proper nutrition, decides to just hide the perfectly good meal and eat the straw, and have Gretel take the food and throw it in the woods for the wild beasts when the Witch isn’t looking.
You know, QAnon always recruits a particular stupid type, and after seeing this I’m no longer surprised they got Schroder on board.
The Witch shows Gretel one of her tricks, how to turn a child’s heart into gingerbread. Yeah, those gingerbread children surrounding the house? Those were all her past victims. Yikes.
I actually think the scenes of the Witch revealing the secrets of her trade to Gretel aren’t too bad. Collins is hamming it up more than the cast of Pigs in Space and Andersen plays off her well. It’s Gretel who really comes through in the final act, displaying far more tenacity and brains than her brother does. In fact, I like to think in an alternate universe, the Witch grooms Gretel to be her apprentice until Gretel overpowers her and uses her newfound magic to save her family, get revenge on her stepmother and become a protector of abused children.
Some time after, the Witch orders Hansel to stick a finger through the bars so she can feel how fat he’s grown. He gives her a bone instead, which, given how the Witch is no stranger to eating children, makes the question of how it got there morbidly redundant. The Witch is fooled due to her poor eyesight and flies into a rage. “That will not do at all!” she shrieks and drools. “I want fat, fat, FAT!! Rolls of fat! Flesh, and more flesh! Soft, undulating, quivering mountains of young boy flesh…”
The Witch storms off to prepare a higher-calorie meal. Hansel admonishes Gretel for sneaking food when he notices she’s gained a little weight (which, come on dude, all the Witch feeds her are empty crab shells, you want her to starve?) and gives her his supper to hide, with the exception of a loaf of bread. So not only is he being a massive hypocrite and a terrible brother, but he chooses to eat carbs, the very thing that’ll ensure he gains weight. You had one job, Hansel.
After a lengthy montage, the Witch checks up on Hansel’s weight gain one more time. It’s been a month since he and Gretel arrived, and her patience is wearing thin. Fed up with his apparent inability to heap on the pounds, the Witch announces that she’ll cook Hansel on the morrow, fat or not. Gretel is surprised when the Witch lights the oven fires that very day, however. The Witch says she’s baking bread to whet her appetite and tells Gretel to climb in the oven to check if it’s hot enough. Of course, Gretel isn’t fooled. She plays dumb and tells her she doesn’t know how to get in herself. The Witch bends over to show her, Gretel shoves her in, and she’s gone faster than you can say “Ding dong the Witch is dead”. Hansel and Gretel aren’t the only ones that are saved from her terror either – with several bangs and sparks, the gingerbread men turn back into live children. The Witch herself is turned into gingerbread now, because karma.
With not much else to do but wrap up the story, Hansel and Gretel inexplicably recognize the way home. Their father is thrilled that they’re alive, telling them he returned to the woods day after day to look for them (suuuuuuure he did). Also, their stepmother is dead. They don’t say how or why she died, but everyone acts like this is the end of all their problems even though they’re still poor and there’s no word on if the famine’s ended. In the original fairytale, Hansel and Gretel find the Witch’s treasure after she dies and takes it home with them, thus ending any concerns about poverty and starvation. At the risk of making this episode more macabre than it already is, I like to think the father finally snapped and took care of his food supply woes and horrible wife in one fell swoop:
Well, I don’t particularly care for this outing, if you haven’t already guessed. It’s especially difficult to watch Andersen with the knowledge of how her life was cut short, or young doe-eyed Schroder knowing the virulent far-right fanatic he’d become. I’m tempted to root for the Witch on that fact alone. Speaking of, Collins as the outrageously camp Witch is good, but those same qualities during her time as the Stepmother make her insufferable. I get that’s the point, but it contributes to the mean-spirited, unpleasant tone of this episode. Remember in the previous review of Little Red Riding Hood where I said Malcolm McDowell’s scenery-devouring Wolf was the saving grace? Imagine if for the first half of that episode, instead of the Wolf, he was some joyless nasty banker who wanted to repossess Granny’s house and kept spitting Reaganomics at her. Collins’ Witch is fun, but by the time she arrives in the story proper, it’s too little too late. She’s not enough to salvage this outing.
There’s also the matter of the writing, which I only touched upon earlier. It’s a very faithful retelling of the story, and therein lies the problem. The script is almost word-for-word from the original tale, resulting in plenty of stilted, unnatural dialogue; that info dump at the beginning is particularly guilty of it. Tying into that is the constant mention of God watching over them and God help us everyone, which, to be fair, is something of a running theme in a lot of Western fairytales: one where the heroes are so pure and good in the face of strife that God and nature bends over to help them. Normally it’s no skin off my back, believe what you want as long as you’re not a jerk about it, but here it rubs me the wrong way; instead of watching a thoughtful retelling of a story where faith plays a significant part in keeping the characters’ hopes alive, I feel like I’m stuck with one of those cheap Christian Sunday school tapes that prioritizes proselytizing over entertainment. Even with the promise of a happy ending, the episode lacks a certain charm that makes sitting through all the misery worth it. It rings especially hollow when you realize nothing gets resolved in the end, apart from the stepmother croaking offscreen with no explanation. All in all, this is one episode I’d be perfectly happy to never watch again. Do yourselves a favor and skip it.
- It’s very subtle, but parts of the score are adapted from Englebert Humperdinck’s opera version of Hansel and Gretel. The gingerbread men being the other children the Witch has captured is a detail also taken from there.
- While the previous episode’s forest was filmed on a sound stage, this one is shot on location at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. That realism is part of what makes this episode so melancholy; it feels like these are children genuinely lost in the wilderness.
- While Hansel breaks off a bit of the house when he discovers it, Gretel makes the unusual choice of smashing one of the windows and sucking on the glass. Interesting (and violent) choice instead of going for the wall or something like that. I’m glad the glass turned out to be sugar because I hate to imagine what would have happened to her otherwise.
- Joan Collins, for her dual portrayal of the Stepmother and the Witch, earned a Cable ACE Award nomination along with Terri Garr for her role in Tale of the Frog Prince. While I can’t say I love Collins for the former, at least she got some recognition for having fun with the latter.
- As Gretel comforts Hansel after learning about what the Witch does with children’s hearts, she tells him he has a good heart, to which he cries “Don’t say that!” Knowing the kind of person Schroder would become gives that line a completely different meaning.
Hey, Was That…: Paul Dooley, who played the hapless Miller in Rumplestiltskin, returns as the children’s even more hapless father. But perhaps the name that surprised me most of all is the director, James Frawley, who also directed a certain little feature called THE MUPPET MOVIE. How did he go from bringing The Muppets to the big screen in all their wacky glory to this dour ordeal?
Who’s The Artist?: Esteemed English illustrator Arthur Rackham, who deserves a much better homage than this one.
Better Or Worse Than…?: Yeah, I’m gonna be the first to say this is not the best version of this story out there – and considering it faces competition from the Cannon Movie Tales film, the direct-to-video film starring Howie Mandel, and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, that’s something. See, those versions, despite their failings, look like the people behind them are having fun with the source material, and don’t make this story about parental abuse and starving, tortured children feel like a trudge through the mud. That, and they don’t star any future MAGA shills. There’s also the HBO Happily Ever After episode which moves the setting to a Brazilian rainforest and has a catchy samba song about how delicious children are, and the bizarre Tim Burton special that only aired once on The Disney Channel which gives us an early taste of his creativity and macabre leanings, or hell, the Hansel and Gretel parody The Simpsons did in Treehouse of Horror XI; go watch those instead.
Ranking: It’s a tough call since I’m hesitant to put any episode below Rapunzel. Like that joyless outing, it has all the right pieces –
– most of the right pieces, but puts too much focus on the worst aspects to make it enjoyable. There’s a difference between creating something dark and creating something bleak. You can make your fairytale retelling dark and still have a good time with it, but you can’t make it bleak. Otherwise, what’s the point?
All right, this wasn’t an easy decision, but Hansel and Gretel gets the new seventh place spot between Rumpelstiltskin and Rapunzel. I would have given it last place, except the scant moments with Joan Collins going to town as the Witch were entertaining, a factor which Rapunzel sorely lacked as a whole. Now excuse me while I go wash off the shame of forcing myself to sit through this.
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre Reviews, the previous review was apathetic, this recent review was too negative, but will the upcoming one be just right? Find out when I look at Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th of each month. Special thanks to my patrons Amelia Jones, TylerFG, and Sam Flemming for their contributions. Those who join the Patreon party get special perks such as sneak previews of reviews, requests and more!