Robert Zemeckis’ new Roald Dahl adaptation is too grim for kids and too tame for parents, despite some solid performances.
Continuing this month of reviewing films that are tepid new versions of well-established classics, it’s time to talk about Robert Zemeckis’ take on Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The disclaimer I’ll put right at the top of this review is that I’m well aware that a 43-year-old childless woman is probably not this film’s target audience. My generation grew up on Nicolas Roeg’s excellent 1990 version that featured Anjelica Huston in a flawless wig. For some of us, it was an introduction to the concept of fairy tales as horror well before we read what really went down in Grimm’s. Unfortunately for Zemeckis’ version, it manages to come across as too grisly for kids while being too tame for their parents.
Lovers of the source material may be glad to hear that Zemeckis holds more closely to the book. Instead, he moves the action to an incredibly idealized 1960s Alabama where the words “Jim” and “Crow” seem to have been wiped from existence. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect a movie made for children to realistically portray ‘60s Alabama, but it still feels like a missed opportunity. We meet the unnamed narrator (Chris Rock) as a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) the moment he’s orphaned. Only his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), who knows there’s no cure like cornbread and the Four Tops, assuages the pain. Spencer is wonderful here, but the joy is the performance itself, not the writing.
After an encounter with a strange woman in the market who turns out to be a witch, Grandma fills the audience in. Witches are real, and they’re not human. They’re demons that have outfitted themselves as affluent women. They hate children and use candy to turn them into various barnyard animals. With this, Grandma decides to play it safe and hies away to an exclusive resort run by Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci). Because this is a fantasy and not actually ‘60s Alabama, Grandmother and Grandson are welcomed as honored guests just before the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children descends on the resort.
To nobody’s surprise, the Society is cover for an entire coven of witches, led by Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). If there’s anything to enjoy in this movie, it’s the sheer unhinged glee that Hathaway throws into her performance. There’s campy and then there’s Camp, and Hathaway clearly knows the difference with her Alyssa Edwards wigs and fully crazed Bela Lugosi accent. (I’m probably in the minority here, but I think Hathaway deserves an Oscar for the way she trills out the line “spleet peeeee sewp!”)
From the moment the coven unveils themselves, it becomes clear that Zemeckis wanted to make this movie less for the unsettling and ultimately melancholy story. Instead, he was more interested in the chance to showcase some spectacular creature effects. They’re plenty effective, but there’s really not enough else going on to hold viewer’s interest. After our hero is turned into a mouse (a scene that could have been truly horrific but instead fails to be mildly concerning), the tone shifts from Burton-esque fantastical realism to silly caper worthy of Disney. Our young hero, now a rodent, finds himself aided by Grandma and two other kids-turned-mice (Kristin Chenowith and Codie-Lei Eastick) in turning all of the witches into rats.
Unfortunately for Zemeckis’ version, it manages to come across as too grisly for kids while being too tame for their parents.
The ending, which does adhere to the book, seems intended to be sweet but comes across as weird and dour. Also, it’ll likely leave young viewers a lot of questions for their parents. The Witches might not be the worst thing Zemeckis has done—that dubious honor still belongs to Welcome to Marwen—but it’s not the best either. What’s so frustrating is how many chances are missed to make this movie thrilling, interesting, or at least remotely memorable.
Having a young Black boy in the Jim Crow South navigate the confines of a society that could be hostile or dangerous to him would have given this film a richer context and meaning. Being more explicit in how diabolical the coven’s plans really were—not just turning children into mice, but doing so knowing their own parents would kill them—would have made the danger feel that much greater. As it is, Hathaway and Spencer both give strong performances, but there’s little to like and almost nothing to love. The Witches might look nice, but like a lot of nice pictures the moment you turn away, it’s already forgotten.
The Witches haunts HBO Max starting Thursday, October 22.