Synopsis – Based on Roald Dahl’s 1983 classic book ‘The Witches’, the story tells the scary, funny and imaginative tale of a seven year old boy who has a run in with some real life witches!
My Take – Full disclosure, unlike a lot of critics, I have continued to admire Robert Zemeckis as a filmmaker. Sure, status wise, his filmography has been facing a huge slump, with his last set of releases (Welcome to Marwen, Allied, The Walk) turning out to be financial disappointments, and his motion-capture features like A Christmas Carol, Beowulf, and The Polar Express been accused to being motion-capture messes devoid of any sort of tone, character and story.
However all this time, I continued my refusal to dismiss the man behind all-time classics like Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and the Back to the Future trilogy, and fully supported the idea of Zemeckis helming a new adaption of Roald Dahl’s classic novel, since I wholeheartedly craved for his magnificent blend of heartfelt and nonsensical cinema.
Plus director Zemeckis and his star, Anne Hathaway, had big shoes to fill as director Nicolas Roeg‘s 1990 adaption and Anjelica Huston‘s lead antagonist performance continues to maintain a fan base.
Unfortunately, despite the talent involved, from Alfonso Cuaron to Guillermo del Toro, this HBO Max dump, has turned out to be a weird and unfunny lesson in how not to adapt a classic, finally making a dent in my hope to see director Zemeckis return to his glory days. Honestly, I wanted to enjoy the film, but the film is just so devoid of personality and such a hopeless, plodding mess that seemed more interested in CGI mice than finding something new to tell in this classic story.
Coming 30 years after the last one, this film just updates the technology and Americanizes it, with some welcome diversity, but never brings anything truly new or exciting to the proceedings. Everyone is just going through the motions, and it trickles down to the audience in short order.
With the only shine of light coming from the Anne Hathaway‘s performance. Whether she’s ranting at her subordinates for their incompetence or sniffing out a child right under her nose, Hathaway is clearly giving it her all, and I have to admit, I couldn’t look away from her. She may be no match for Anjelica Huston, but she’s still the closest this misfire gets to cast a spell. It’s hard to see who this was made for, as just about any age group will be let down by this HBO Max release.
Narrated by his older version (Chris Rock), the story set in 1960s Alabama, follows a young boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), who after losing both his parents in a car accident is taken in by his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), a healer. While he seems to be settling in slowly, his life takes an unexpected turn when he is approached by a strange woman (Josette Simon) at the supermarket, who his grandmother reveals was a witch, whose only goal in life is to murder children.
Fearing that their lives are in danger, the two leave immediately for a stay-cation at the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel, hoping to hide between the classy guests. However, unknown to them, the same witch, along with her entire coven led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), are also convening for their annual meeting at the same hotel, with a plan to dispose every child in the whole wide world.
The rest of the blessedly 106 minutes long 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 hilariously hamming it away.
The plot is exactly the same as its predecessor, with any minor story changes, like the Grandmother trying to use the witch’s potion to create her own cure for its effects, remain detrimental to the film’s pacing.
But even with a few intriguing narrative liberties, the film is ultimately a flat, unimaginative retread of Dahl‘s story, with moments of arch comedy that prove distancing rather than enveloping. The film is campy but not in a good way. It’s a muddle, a mess, a film that can’t find its footing and tries to blend scary and campy too much and instead resulted in the opposite.
The backdrop, along with the casting of two Black actors in lead roles, was supposed to introduce an intriguing racial subtext that isn’t sufficiently developed. The film sometimes directs our attention to the contrast between the hotel’s mostly Black staff and its wealthy white clientele. At one point, Grandma flashes back to her childhood in the segregated South, where she once had a close run-in with a witch herself. Later, Grandma notes that witches only prey on the poor and the overlooked, an intriguing idea that the film doesn’t follow through on. These witches, themselves a reasonably diverse bunch, don’t seem to discriminate when it comes to stalking children.
Its visual effects, too, pale in comparison. Apart from the cute if overly cartoon looking mice, most of the visual-effects budget seems to have gone toward making Hathaway look as grotesque as possible. Beyond her ability to fly and shoot death rays out of her eyeballs, this Grand High Witch has three fingers on each hand, a single toe on each foot, which is more than the other witches have, and, most disturbingly, a sharp-toothed grin that stretches from ear to ear.
The film surprisingly uses the original ending of Roald Dahl’s book that was considered too dark for the 1990 film. But where that ending would have fit the very dark tone of the film, it comes across as a very offbeat joke here, in a film mostly concerned with laughs.
The performances don’t help the cause too. Octavia Spencer, is left high and dry, reciting simply terrible lines with the conviction of a middle school drama class, while Stanley Tucci is nothing more than a comic relief. Chris Rock, whose recent turn in FX’s Fargo proved his ability as a serious actor, gets back into his older self as a narrator, but sounds wholly unnecessary and bored with trappings on screen. While Jahzir Kadeem Bruno and Codie-Lei Eastick are alright for their age, Kristen Chenowith just felt wasted.
Nevertheless, like I mentioned above, Anne Hathaway, with an accent that defies explanation and identification, is the highlight of the film. She is having fun, and while most parts of the film struggle to find a happy medium between its nightmarish concept and its accessibility to both children and adults, she is the only part that works. Her exchanges with the hotel manager, Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci), are the funniest parts of the film. On the whole, ‘The Witch’ is a blandly executed adaption that lacks any personality and comes out as middling and indifferent.
Directed – Robert Zemeckis
Rated – PG
Run Time – 106 minutes