The Disney Channel aired Tim Burton’s Hansel and Gretel only once, on Halloween night in 1983, but it must have given those few who saw the broadcast much to ponder over the following three decades. For all that time, the 35-minute adaptation of that old German folktale stood as perhaps the hardest-to-see item in the Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas auteur’s catalog. Of course, back in 1983, the 25-year-old Burton hadn’t yet made either of those movies, nor any of the other belovedly askew features for which we know him today. He had to his name only a couple of animated shorts made at CalArts and a stop-motion homage to his hero Vincent Price. Still, that added up to enough to land him this project, his first live-action film made as an adult, which he used as an outlet for his fascination with Japan.
Using an all-Japanese cast, shooting with the 16-millimeter aesthetic of old martial arts movies, and taking a special-effects technique or two from the Godzilla manual, Burton’s Hansel and Gretel looks (and sounds) like no version of the story you’ve seen before, or will likely ever see again. But at least you can now watch it as often as you like, owing to its recent sudden appearance on Youtube after that long absence from public viewability, broken only by screenings at the Museum of Modern Art and the Cinémathèque Française. In it we expereince the intersection of the grotesque as represented by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the grotesque as represented by the Burtonian sensibility, the new and strange freedom of early cable television, and the sheer audacity of a young filmmaker — not to mention a heck of a hand-to-hand combat session between Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch who would make them dinner. Her dinner, that is.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.