Roald Dahl's beloved book returns to the big screen — but this is a tamer, lighter and blander version, even with Anne Hathaway chewing the scenery as the Grand High Witch.
December 10, 2020
What's the one thing that every movie remake has in common? No matter how it turns out, the original film still exists. So, if the latest version doesn't cast a spell, you can return to the old one — revisiting it, appreciating it anew and steeping yourself in nostalgia in the process. Of course, film remakes aren't supposed to inspire viewers to flock back to their predecessors. While that possibility is a silver lining for movie buffs, it isn't the outcome intended by filmmakers. But, it's exactly what The Witches circa 2020 delivers. Writer/director Robert Zemeckis has everything from Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit to Castaway and The Polar Express to his name, and he co-wrote the screenplay here with Black-ish and Girls Trip's Kenya Barris and Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water's Guillermo del Toro; however, their main achievement with The Witches is reminding everyone just how great the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl's book still is.
No one should need a new movie to jog their memories; since hitting screens three decades ago, the Anjelica Huston-starring version of The Witches has been a creepy, dark and weird children's (and kidults') favourite. And it's definitely all of those things, as it should be — and not just because it's about witches who hate children to the point of attempted genocide. The Witches tells a tale about kids realising that all isn't what it seems in the world, and that danger, trouble and pain can lurk around any corner. It tears open the idea that life is always safe, happy and fun like it's ripping off a bandaid. This happens in a child-friendly away, of course, but it's meant to be unsettling, unnerving, upsetting and strange. On the page and in every screen adaptation, The Witches does start with a boy losing his parents in a car accident and being uprooted to a new place and a new life as a result, after all.
This fresh iteration kicks off that way, too, as narrated by Chris Rock as the older version of the film's unnamed young protagonist (Jahzir Bruno, The Christmas Chronicles 2). It's 1968, and the boy in question moves to Alabama to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer, Onward), who struggles to coax him out of his grief-fuelled fog. But they bond over her shocking revelation: that witches exist, they're everywhere, they despise children and she has experience with them. Also, once a witch sets their sights on a kid, it never lets up. That's why, after one crosses the boy's path, grandma whisks him off to "the swankiest resort in Alabama", where she's certain they'll be safe among rich white folks. Of course, she couldn't have predicted that the group of women that have taken over the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel's ballroom — the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, apparently — are all witches. Or, that the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, Dark Waters) is in attendance, unveiling a plan to turn every kid in the world into a rodent via a potion called 'Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker'.
Much that has endeared The Witches to readers and viewers over the years remains in the latest film — but tinkering with the details and tone makes an unfortunate impact. Brimming as it is with bright colours and overdone CGI, the new iteration of The Witches favours gloss and shine over chills and potential nightmares. It's the cosy and smooth version of the story, and the lack of sharp edges is noticeable. Zemeckis and company try to add scares in various ways, yet struggle with every attempt. The film's villains, especially the Grand High Witch, are given over-sized Joker-esque smiles teeming with jagged teeth, for example, but they just look cartoonish. At every turn, if there's a way to make something more blatant while also less disconcerting, The Witches always takes that choice. Its reliance upon special effects — to levitate the Grand High Witch, and for its talking children-turned-mice — also speaks volumes. Everything here is overt to an in-your-face extreme, and also far less intricate and much more bland.
See also: the two significant narrative shifts, as designed to bring weight to the tale. This remake is set in the US, in the south and in the 60s, and its two lead characters are Black Americans. Via these changes, Zemeckis, Barris and del Toro endeavour to tap into historical horrors, as part of Hollywood's current reckoning with America's past. Alas, this slick film doesn't have anything much to say about either decision. Racism is a part of the on-screen world, and it's noticeable that the hotel's staff are all people of colour while its guests are almost exclusively white; however, rather than making an important point, these elements just seem like a calculated effort to make the movie more topical. Indeed, The Witches pokes fun of the portly Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick, Holmes & Watson), the other boy staying at the hotel, far more than it attempts to serve up even a cursory exploration of its grandmother-grandson central duo's experiences due to their race.
It might be unfair to think that some remakes only eventuate because a studio executive thought it was time to wring some more cash out of a beloved story, but that's how The Witches feels. It's simultaneously broader and tamer — including Hathaway's over-the-top performance, although she does appear to be enjoying herself immensely — and it radiates big pantomime energy. Spencer and Bruno give the movie a hefty dose of heart, even when the latter is lending his voice to a critter with a tail. Stanley Tucci, Hathaway's The Devil Wears Prada co-star, is suitably amusing at the hotel's put-upon manager. But there's a lack of overall magic in The Witches, either of the twisted or charming type — unless sending viewers clamouring to find wherever the original is currently streaming counts.