My children are currently studying the European Renaissance, particularly how the prevailing worldview of the time is revealed by the art of the time period.

It’s not that the artists were necessarily evangelists for their perspectives, but what they believed to be true – the foundation of anyone’s worldview – is clearly reflected in their art: the fascination with Greek philosophy and mythology (such as Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” or Raphael’s “The School of Athens”), the budding humanism (Michelangelo’s “David” or Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”), and so forth.

Today’s artists, many of whom have shifted from frescoes to a more silver screen, likewise often reveal their worldview in their films, reflecting not only what they believe to be true, but also the general zeitgeist of the times, just as in the Renaissance.

And action films, believe it or not, are evidence of that, as the nature of their heroes reflect what we believe to be heroic and therefore what we believe to be good and true and praiseworthy.

In the middle of the 20th century, for example, the time of Charlton Heston and John Wayne, America’s action heroes were often cowboys (iconic symbols of rugged, American individualism), sheriffs (men of law in a lawless world) or biblical champions (“Ben Hur, “Ten Commandments”).

After the turbulent ’60s and the Vietnam era, however, America’s action heroes shifted from patriots and patriarchs to disillusioned, ex-military types (“Rambo” and TV’s “The A-Team”) and anti-heroes and mavericks who bucked “the system” (“Top Gun” and TV’s “Dukes of Hazzard”). The art world of entertainment just wouldn’t suffer a straight-laced God-and-country hero anymore, for it didn’t ring “true” to the filmmakers. Out with Superman and Captain America, in with Batman and Spider-Man.

Similarly, the new action film in theaters this week, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” is a perfect mirror for our times.

The film follows the classic fairy tale children, whose parents abandon them in the forest for unknown reasons and outwit a witch in candy cottage who had captured them. From there, however, the film follows the exploits of these children, grown into mercenary witch hunters who roam all of Germany exterminating hags until the film’s final conclusion, when they confront the witch who knows why their parents abandoned them in the first place.

These two action heroes, despite being cast in the late Middle Ages, are nevertheless children of the 21st century – action heroes, male and female (see recent developments in the U.S. military), who are wounded, lonely children fighting to find peace in a world overwhelmingly evil. They have no country or church to help them; they have no good or righteous cause to fight for (save the nebulous desire to help children, or make money, or better yet, both); the law is corrupt; God is nonexistent. The power of the gun is all that prevails, and the understanding of oneself and healing childhood wounds is the ultimate prize, even more so than defeating evil.

Needless to say, John Wayne would not recognize these characters as heroes.

But modern audiences will. The movie is a reflection of the values (or the loss thereof) of our larger, American culture.

It’s noteworthy to point out, that though battling demonic witches, even explicitly called “the spawn of Satan,” there isn’t a religious figure in the film. In fact, whenever religion is demonstrated (one character crosses herself, another utters a brief prayer), the person doing so is immediately killed by a witch, a not-so-subtle message that God can’t save you from this evil plague.

“Evil is upon you,” the film states, “whether you want it or not.”

And when a man utters a quick, “Oh, God,” the witch coolly responds, “There is no use in praying, my friend. Even your god knows better than to come here.”

In “Hansel & Gretel,” God is impotent and restricted only to certain spheres of life (like inside a church and never out), yet another reflection upon the dogmatically secular values of American society.

All in all, it’s a fascinating study, a remarkably clear demonstration of worldview in film.

It is not, however, a fascinating or recommended movie.

The film blends humor and out-of-place techno-gadgetry with a supernatural action flick, sort of like “Princess Bride” meets “Van Helsing” meets Will Smith’s “Wild, Wild West.” It’s a creative idea, but if you’re familiar with “Van Helsing” and “Wild, Wild West,” comparing this film to those stinkers is clearly not a compliment. Suffering a similar fate as those, “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” is somewhat entertaining, but too discombobulated and cheesy and poorly put together to make it worth your theater dollars.

Aside: And I did so want to like this movie, though I didn’t hold out much hope it would fulfill my wishes. It just so happens to be set in a fictionalized, village version of my birthplace: Augsburg, Germany. But alas, even that couldn’t save it.

Content advisory:

  • “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” rated R, juxtaposes time periods and attitudes, thus including 20 profanities and obscenities, several of which are strong.
  • The movie is packed with violence and gore, blood spatters and the like. Amputations, decapitations, gunfights, blood spurting … yeah, you get the idea.
  • The film doesn’t have any significant romantic storylines, but nonetheless manages to sneak in a brief shot of nearly full, female nudity as a woman seduces one of the characters by stripping, followed by implied, but unseen, sex. The opening credits include some drawings of bare-chested witches. There’s also some various cleavage and leggy shots, some shirtless guys and a couple of kisses. In one lighter scene, a teenage boy is cleaning up a wounded and unconscious (though clothed) Gretel and is entranced by dabbing her cleavage with a wet cloth – until she awakens and stops him.
  • The film has some brief occult content (outside of the presence of the witches themselves), including some runes and references to spells, some potions and candles and implied ceremonies, but no actual spell-casting or chanting or sacrifice or whatnot is depicted. The movie does explicitly state that there are both “good” witches and evil witches and frequently mentions a witch “Sabbath.” Given the nature of the film’s storyline, however, there is remarkably little – but not nonexistent – occult content. Other religious content is mentioned in the review above, though there’s also a line in which a witch sneers it’s “pathetic” to “sacrifice yourself to save a human,” perhaps a veiled reference to Christ.

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