Nicolas Roeg’s classic 1990 film The Witches, based on the Roald Dahl book of the same name, is one of those horrific childhood terrors that still sits with me. It’s a dark fantasy, one about demon creatures disguised as powerful women, and it’s aggressively violent against children. Both book and film have been horrifying youth across the English speaking world for thirty years now, and it’s one of those eerie tales that’s become part of our mythology.
Now Robert Zemeckis has decided he wants to take a crack at Dahl’s story.
The Witches tells the tale of an unnamed young boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), as told through his adult self serving as narrator (Chris Rock), and his grandma (Octavia Spencer). The story has moved from England, where Dahl and Roeg set it, and moved it to the Southern United States. This pair of Alabama residents wind up together after the boy’s parents are killed in a wreck, and he’s having a hard time dealing with their passing. When he’s confronted by someone his grandma deems a “witch” in a bodega the pair head for a fancy hotel near a beach that’s run by Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci), the manager. While convinced they are safe, the boy soon discovers that a whole gang of witches have shown up and are led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). A game of cat and mouse begins as the two try to stay safe from these vicious, evil forces.
Right off the bat I’ve got to remind you that this is a Robert Zemeckis film. Way back in the 1980s he released a film titled Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a blend of animation and live-action filmmaking, and he’s been obsessed with his toys ever since. Whether it’s splicing Tom Hanks into historical footage seamlessly in Forrest Gump or going through his 2010s motion capture phase, the guy has always wanted to push boundaries by incorporating items from his back of tricks. When this new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book was announced I tried to figure out what he was doing, knowing that there had to be a reason he wanted to play in this particular sandbox.
Turns out the guy was interested in new ways to play with motion capture. Anthropomorphized mice are obvious if you’ve followed the marketing, but what I really enjoyed was his work with the demonic witches. These things are gnarly, split with smiles that lie between the Uncanny Valley and decency, and I adored them no matter what issues I found with the visuals. The whole thing is wonky, but it’s hilariously weird and fun despite itself.
Our Grand High Witch is easily the best part of the entire affair. I’ve had a long journey with Anne Hathaway, one that was fraught with frustration but always full of potential. I’ve grown a strong respect for her abilities in the last decade and I’m glad I came around. Now, though, she’s gone completely off the rails. While many would have made different choices with this role, Hathaway has decided to attack it by just being the most one could possibly be. From her accent to her gait, every bit of her is gleefully weird and borderline inhuman in delivery. Most actors would have definitely done something a bit grander than normal, but Hathaway has seemingly looked in the mirror and just decided to be a human serpent.
Alongside her we’re given little delights. Chris Rock narrating a film has lent it an unfortunate line of comparison to “Everybody Hates Chris,” a television show semi-based on his childhood. Octavia Spencer is thankfully not asked to deliver an excessive crying scene, instead just being a sweet little woman that happens to be willing to viciously hunt down and assassinate an entire race of beings. And, as always, a touch of Tucci is always welcome. It’s a fun cast, but it’s a shame the film isn’t willing to rise to the occasion and be all it can truly be.
Moving the story to the American South and setting the film in 1968, as well as changing the lead characters from white to black, gives the story a strongly coded undertone of racial inequality. We get touches of it, mainly from the imagery and a couple of lines. Each low-level employee of the hotel is black while most other employees in higher positions are held by white people. Upon entering the hotel, the grandmother and little boy are given the side-eye by Stringer, who proceeds to tell the boy that his kind should feel lucky just to be staying there. These instances are peppered in the first act but mysteriously get left by the wayside after that, leaving me to wonder why it was set in such a charged place at such a charged time and why it was included anyway.
The film follows the book more closely than the previous adaptation despite the location change. With this comes many of the problems, most notably the incredible darkness of the finale and the sense that this is only the first part of a larger adventure. That worked fine in Dahl’s story, but in the hands of Zemeckis seems to have been just an afterthought. He tried to make the uglier parts of the story whimsical, even charming. It doesn’t make them brighter, but it takes the wind out of their sails and makes them fall flat. Hell, even Alan Silvestri’s score doesn’t manage to be much more than acceptable.
I’m torn on The Witches. It’s a step up from his previous film, Welcome to Marwen, but it’s somehow unable to keep up with all of the ambitious things that it tries to do. While it succeeds at being mildly entertaining (with Hathaway being responsible for the lion’s share of that), it never reaches higher than that and I felt so frustrated by what Zemeckis has offered. The Witches is an enjoyable little film, but not something that I would watch twice and I’d honestly have a hard time recommending it to anyone. You know, unless they’re looking for an odd curiosity.