The Witches (2020) Review

It’s become something of a cliché recently to begin films – especially ones aimed at a family audience – with a car accident, robbing a character of one or more parents. “Dark Phoenix” did it. “Pete’s Dragon” did it. “Shazam!” sort of did it. Even “Frozen” did it, although they used a ship instead of a car. It’s on that particular detail that Zemeckis chooses to turn his protagonist’s world upside down (after a witchipedia info-dump narration from Chris Rock) in his remake of “The Witches”.

When a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) ends up living with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after his parents are killed in a car crash, it’s not long before he has his first encounter with one of the witches she’s warned him about. Alarmed by the witch’s presence and concerned for her own health, the grandmother decides a holiday is in order. But it turns out their destination of choice is the same hotel the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) has chosen for a conference to unveil her master plan for the worldwide eradication of children.

There are a number of cosmetic changes in this reimagining of Roald Dahl’s classic tale. The action is transposed to late 1960s Alabama and while it briefly promises to weave some of that era’s race relations into the fabric of the story, it doesn’t really amount to everything despite the bulk of the adventure being set in a plantation house turned hotel. It’s a shame there’s no real pay-off for the flirtation with the issue of prejudice and segregation because the spectre of racial tension, especially in the pivotal year of 1968 when this story is set, cast a pall over much of the film’s early scenes.

This interpretation also dwells on the grief of losing his parents more than Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 version, almost like Zemeckis is consciously making an effort to reconnect with the humanity most of his recent films have lacked. Unfortuantely, the effort is short lived and it’s quite clear Zemeckis’ real aim is to get to the CGI mice as soon as possible.

Unfortunately, the CGI here varies from adequate (the mice) to poor (the cat). The actual human participants in the story are much reduced in favour of a third talking mouse with her own backstory, voiced by Kristin Chenoweth. Voice-wise, though, nothing compares to Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch. It’s not entirely clear what she’s going for at any given moment and it wanders around Eastern Europe and Scandinavia more than a Genovian Royal goodwill tour. Hathaway does what she can to inject some energy into proceedings but the scripts not quite meaty enough to sink her teeth into and she lacks Anjelica Huston’s effortless ability to make even the most innocuous sounding dialogue take on sinister under and overtones.

Make-up wise the witches themselves are far too obviously odd, with the Heath Ledger Joker-style facial scars distractingly obvious and while Hathaway certainly benefits from more kinetic and contorted CGI and prosthetics, there’s no denying Huston was infinitely more…magical. Octavia Spencer is as reliable as ever of course but, like all of the live-action cast, criminally underused and patchily developed. Oh, we hit all the necessary story beats but it never feels cohesive or organic.

It may stick closer to the source novel than the first movie did but the 1990 version arguably captured Dahl’s mischievously dark sense of humour more accurately than this. You can’t help but curse the spin-the-bottle directing choice of Zemeckis when both Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón were involved in the production. Not only have we been deprived of del Toro’s vision of the story as a stop motion animation, but we’re also now left with this, a version of “The Witches” that feels paler and less substantive than its predecessor in nearly every aspect (much like the “The Lion King” remake).