And so we arrive at The Witches–also stylized as Roald Dahl’s The Witches, in case you might mix it up with Judy Blume’s The Witches. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), the film is bedazzled with CGI mastery. I look at the lead actors and see Oscars, Emmys, and Tonys. At the same, something feels mechanical about all this movie magic. The wheels and gears creak and groan, as if the filmmakers are trying really hard to look like they’re not trying at all. What we’re left with is a film that’s not terrible, it’s just off.
The script (co-written by Zemeckis with Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro) transplants Dahl’s narrative from Europe to the American Deep South. It’s 1968, and a little boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) is orphaned and sent to live with his firm-yet-loving grandma (Octavia Spencer). Our hero–who is, conveniently, named Hero–spends the early scenes in a bone-deep funk, grieving for the sudden loss of his parents. His grandma slowly brings him back to life, via good food and good music.
No sooner has Hero snapped back to life when a coven of witches invade their little town. It turns out that Grandma is a mystical healer who once lost her childhood best friend to the dark sorcery of a witch. Hero and Grandma track the black magic to a posh hotel, where a host of witches has gathered for a convention of evil. These monstrous women are led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), who has hatched a plan to transform the children of the world into rodents. It falls on Hero, Grandma, and a few new allies to stop this horrible deed in its tracks.
For better or worse, this Witches will be compared to the 1990 version by Nicolas Roeg. That film had Angelica Huston in the Hathaway role, and Jim Henson’s puppetry in place of this CGI bonanza. But it also ran on a weird energy and a relentless sense of fun. It was deliciously campy, Huston was delightfully vampy, and nobody tried to take any of it too seriously. The 2020 version tops it in technical mastery, but lacks that spark of infectious anarchy that made Roeg’s work an enduring Halloween classic.
That’s a pity, because Hathaway holds her own as the witch queen. She has clearly studied at the Cruella de Ville School of Villainy, never opting to chew the scenery so much as devour it whole. It’s a tricky thing to play anything this broad, and a lesser talent could’ve ridden this role off the rails and into the ravine. Hathaway takes it over the top, and her wonderful performance elevates the entire movie.
Everyone else does what they can with what they have. Spencer brings her strength to Grandma, while Bruno makes Hero easy to root for. Poor Stanley Tucci gets wasted as the flummoxed hotel manager. (I feel like every actor playing a hotel manager in the last forty years is just doing a riff on John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty, anyway.)
Howard Hawks once observed that a classic movie should have three great scenes and no bad scenes. Over his career, Robert Zemeckis has delivered a few movies to meet this standard: Think about Forrest Gump sprinting across America, or Marty McFly trying to shred a Telecaster while his limbs fade into oblivion. The Witches doesn’t really have any bad scenes, but nothing about it approaches greatness, either. A lot of it just sits there, ready to be forgotten as soon it’s over. Roald Dahl gave us a unique literary landscape, where fun and fear often flow together. This film simply loses too much of that magic in the translation.
106 min. PG. HBOMax (A note: This film features frightening images of CGI rats and disfigured witches. Like the 1990 film, this is definitely not for younger children.)