The first thing you notice about the new, Robert Zemeckis-directed adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel The Witches is that the focus is on the children, who are very much in peril for the entirety of the story. At least as I recall, the centerpiece of the Nicolas Roeg-directed 1990 version were the witches themselves and their hideous appearance once their disguises were removed and their true forms were revealed. Led by the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Houston in the original film; Anne Hathaway in the new one), the witches unveil their diseased bald heads, clawed hands, taloned feet and extra-wide mouths and noses in spectacular fashion as the first step in their plot to transform all of the Earth’s children into easily squish-able mice.
This time around, the plan remains the same, but the screenplay shifts the focus very squarely onto a nameless boy (Jahzir Kadeen Bruno) living in 1968 Chicago, whose parents die in a car crash, forcing him to live with his kindly grandmother (Octavia Spencer) in the small Alabama town of Demopolis. In the 1990 film, the plot to kill all children is looked at with a certain sideways glance of dark humor, but with this new version of The Witches, because the screenplay (crafted by Zemickis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro) takes the time to make us care and sympathize with this lonely kid, the tone is more dangerous and the threats more real. (It should be mentioned that master storytellers Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón are among the producers of the movie.)
Almost as soon as he arrives, the boy has a strange encounter with a creepy woman in a grocery store, which, when combined with her strange coughing fits, immediately clues the grandmother into the fact that there’s a witch in their town and that her grandson is in danger. She decides to call in a few favors and books them in a fancy, seaside resort hotel, thinking this out-of-the-way location will keep everyone safe. But as it turns out, there’s a massive witch gathering in the same hotel (run by a friendly but uptight manager, played by Stanley Tucci). The purpose of said gathering is to reveal the children-into-mice plan and distribute the necessary secret potion that will make the transformations happen. They even test out the potion on an unsuspecting fat British kid named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) staying in the hotel with his parents. But as soon as he’s turned into a mouse, our hero kid is caught spying on the gathering and is transformed, too. The two escape with the help of the boy’s pet mouse Daisy (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth; yes, the mice can speak).
The rest of the blessedly short film is reduced to witches looking for children who have been turned into mice and plotting a way to disperse the potion into the mouths of children around the world, while our mice friends and Grandma figure out how to stop them. What results is a great deal of production design, lifeless chase sequences, a number of special effects, and Hathaway overacting to such a degree it almost makes me long to rewatch her performance in The Hustle. The other thing that happens is a tremendous amount of exposition, mostly from Grandma telling her grandson all about witches and her ability to counter many of the spells and potions they come up with (although she’s not a witch herself). Even more explanation comes from the grown-up version of the boy (voiced by Chris Rock), giving a lecture to an unknown group of students and to what purpose we’re not sure until the end (although it’s not hard to figure out).
Zemickis has proven himself a true master of directing films that require a great deal of special effects, and in most cases, he manages to use effects in a way that enhance and further the story without losing sight of it. But in The Witches, it feels like he’s using the visuals to cover up what is a fairly weak tale that ends rather abruptly and without any truly satisfying conclusion. There’s a great deal of smoke without much fire. Admittedly the impact of seeing Hathaway’s face contort into that of a fanged, grotesque creature with an extra-wide gaping mouth and messed-up digits can be pretty freaky, but her dialogue is all bark and no toothy bite; I think she uses the word “stupid” about 57,000 times to describe anyone who crosses her path, with “filthy” coming in a close second—not exactly inspired writing.
What I believe is the culprit is sentimentality. Zemeckis has usually been able to curb it in favor of technical wizardry, and while his films often appeal to children, he doesn’t always overtly make them family friendly. The same cannot be said for the PG-rated The Witches, which seems to bend over backwards to be not just safe for kids but appealing to them by producing a film loaded with loud, flashy, mildly creepy stimuli. Add what sounds like watered-down John Williams in Alan Silvestri’s score and uninspired cinematography by Don Burgess, and The Witches doesn’t have a great deal going for it beyond some eye-popping production design, a necessary hint of menace, stellar costume work, and strong performances from Spencer and Bruno. I’m certainly not counting Zemeckis out at this point, but between this and the ill-advised Welcome to Marwen, he’s on a bit of a skid that more adult-oriented works seemed to pull him out of when he went down the motion-capture rabbit hole in the early 2000s. The Witches isn’t a total disaster, but I can’t imagine it being one people come back to.
The film streams on HBO Max beginning October 22.
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