Prior to seeing Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, the question foremost in my mind was, "is there any possibility that it's a parody?" And now, having seen it, the replacement question is, is there any possibility that it's not?"

The film is the latest in the weirdly extended trend of Dark, Violent, Modernised fairy tales that I suppose began back around The Brothers Grimm, and is strongly threatening to reach it's all time nadir in the first quarter of 2013, what with Jack the Hip and Mirthless Giant Slayer and Oz the Edgier, Gloomier, and Powerful both looming on the horizon. But Hansel & Gretel got there first; indeed, it was meant to have gotten there ages ago, but it was delayed and delayed and ended up in January. That's what we professional moviegoers refer to as a "tell". Though in point of fact, this is nowhere near as bad as it gets - Red Riding Hood wasn't that long ago, y'all - and it all comes back to that main question anyway: is this a parody? It has to be a parody. It's a Germanic folktale turned into a hyper-bloody action movie in which a coven of witches is taken down by a Gatling gun; and that's not remotely where it starts. Hell, the opening credits themselves have already gestured in that direction by using anachronistic newspaper clippings to summarise the "in-between" part of the plot, after the famous story of the two plucky children surviving a most heinous experience in a house made of candy, and before they have become the 18th Century's biggest celebrities, marching from town to town with a reputation and a cynical, seen-it-all attitude preceding them, killing witches by the gross and living handsomely for it.

It's a film in which we're almost constantly being forced to confront the extremely contemporary content, what with the crazy steampunk everything (right down to, God's my witness, steampunk insulin injections - Hansel became diabetic as a result of his experiences, a potentially clever subplot that barely even makes a blip) and the liberal F-bombs, and the way that the two leads simply do not pretend for a quarter of a second that they're anywhere but the second decade of the 21st Century, and find a way to make that fit in with the eagerly stereotypical depiction of northern Europe as a nonstop parade of mud and rickety stick houses. The least you can say is that it's vigorously anti-serious; but whether it is thus in a profoundly stupid way or a profoundly clever way, the movie does not telegraph. If anything, the movie doesn't seem to know itself, and it is frequently split between absurdities that can only be making fun of themselves, and absurdities presented with such straitlaced sobriety that it seems, no, the filmmakers actually thought this was incredibly cool and awesome, and not the most unbelievably stupid thing in life. There's no key that ever unlocks the whole movie, and plenty of evidence on either side, right down to the main characters: Gemma Arterton plays Gretel in what is clearly a self-aware, "this is the silliest thing ever, so let's run with that" level of arch-serious detachment, while Jeremy Renner's Hansel mostly seems to take things at face value and earnestly wants to make this wildly dumb concept seem amazing. Neither one is necessarily a better approach, I guess, that I was infinitely happier watching Arterton's wildly dry badassery.

Regardless of whether the film is making fun of itself or not, the core of the thing remains: it is goofy, it is big and ridiculous, and it is fun - until it's not. As parody or as high-concept reimagining, Hansel & Gretel only has so much energy to go around in its 88 minutes, and it doles it out sparingly: frequently, it clatters to a halt for lengthy scenes setting up its not-terribly-complicated mythology that nevertheless earns a peculiar amount of screentime, or establishing a whole lot of characters who get only thing to do, ever, but have to wait around for the most of the movie, just in case, or allowing Famke Janssen to thoroughly embarrass herself as the head witch Muriel, trying for the same register of "oh, I'm much smarter than this screenplay" cool that Arterton makes so easy and appealing, but missing it by a mile and landing in a performance that's flat and smug without any redeeming humor or charm.

Any protracted stretch of longeurs is death for a movie that relies on fizzy, manic energy as heavily as Hansel & Gretel does, and it absolutely makes things worse that, in general, the film slows down more and longer as it gets closer to the end, and the asinine filigrees of dialogue and production design that are most of what the film has to offer for a personality slowly but surely find themselves replaced by enthusiastic but hardly original gun battles - gun battles, I repeat, in a Grimm fairy tale movie, and I ask again, can this not be a parody? - and Gretel spouting "fuck" at frequent intervals for no particular reason.

Even at its worst, the film has distinct compensations: the sets are pretty delightfully designed, no matter how you slice it, going for a physically plausible storybook illustration feel rather than anything that could possibly be described by anyone as realism, and the make-up of the film's many witches, though not always flawelssly persuasive (and often augmented by obvious CGI), is tremendously imaginative. A film made in this same environment with an eye to horror rather than action could probably scrounge up some real proper atmosphere for itself, I don't mind saying. The film certainly isn't lavish, but it looks fun anyway.

And, too, even when they seem to be acting in separate movies entirely - which happens a lot - Arterton and Renner never give up what they're doing, both of them carrying the same heightened energy from their first scene to their last. It is a throughline that holds Hansel & Gretel together much longer than it otherwise might, with its tonal inconsistencies and conceptual madness; the title promises that it is a film about these characters, and while they are more enjoyable mechanically than psychologically, they are an anchor for the rest of the messy, silly thing to manage a semblance of coherence.