The Witches (2020)
Back in 1990, English director Nicolas Roeg and co-producer Jim Henson scared the living daylights out of youngsters with their live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 book, The Witches. One of Dahl’s darker stories, the movie was a near-perfect combination of bizarro European filmmaking and excellent practical effects by The Jim Henson Company, the whole thing topped off by a creepily twisted performance from Anjelica Huston, who portrayed the wickedly evil Grand High Witch.
Now, 30 years on, American visionary filmmaker Robert Zemeckis seems like he’d be the perfect fit to re-make Dahl’s book considering he managed to scare the bejabbers out of me as a child by blurring the lines between fantasy and nightmare in films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and Death Becomes Her (1992). While he doesn’t exactly knock it out of the park with his re-vamp of The Witches, Zemeckis still manages to deliver a campy and demented, albeit cartoonish take on the material thanks to some disturbing (CGI-heavy) visuals and a few great performances, mainly that of Anne Hathaway, Alice in Wonderland (2010), who plays the kid-hating monarch of witches.
Sticking much more closely to Dahl’s story, Zemeckis — who co-wrote the script with Guillermo del Toro, Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), and Kenya Barris, Girls Trip (2017) — makes a couple of welcome changes that elevate the film. The first is moving the action from England to Demopolis, Alabama, circa 1967, which lets him spin a couple of Motown hits, such as ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ by The Four Tops. The second is race-bending our protagonist to an African American child named Charlie (played by Jahzir Bruno) who’s navigating the dangers of the Civil-Rights era in the South.
The movie opens with a voice-over by Chris Rock (playing an older incarnation of Charlie) who explains to audiences that witches are real and that they hate children — so much so that a witch gets the same pleasure out of squashing a child as others do from eating a bowl of delicious ice cream. He then proceeds to tell us his childhood story, where he was taken to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) in Alabama after his parents died in a car crash. Things are awkward for a while, but his grandma buys him a pet mouse that he names Daisy, and grandma and Charlie begin to connect. After having a strange encounter with an eerie woman at a grocery store, Charlie’s grandmother tells him that witches ‘live amongst us’ and warns him how to spot one, ultimately deciding to temporarily re-locate to a nearby hotel for a while, seeing as the witch from the store may have picked up his scent.
Hoping her healing powers can protect them, Charlie’s grandmother checks the two into a lavish hotel, where they intend to lay low until things blow over. Unbeknownst to our heroes, however, a Southern coven of witches, led by Norwegian Grand High Witch (a totally committed Anne Hathaway), also arrive at the establishment under the guise of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, who plan on using the hotel’s large ballroom to host a gathering. But when Charlie finds himself trapped under a stage where the women are holding their ‘event,’ he discovers that they’re all, in fact, witches preparing for a master plan to eliminate children by turning them into mice via a purple elixir.
It’s here where the film really shines, with Zemeckis and his team doing a terrific job in recreating one of the most iconic sequences from the original. It helps that Hathaway’s brought her A-game as her highness, The Grand High Witch, clearly having a killer time with a thick Scandinavian/ Norwegian accent and an over-the-top persona, levitating in villainous fashion as she unveils her sinister plot. This is also where the witches first reveal their true nightmarish forms, brought to life by some gnarly FX, audiences seeing their scarred bald heads, teeth-y wide bites, and distorted claw-like hands and toes, which have actually copped the film a fair amount of flak from the disabled community.
Alas, Charlie is caught and pulled out of hiding by the ravenous bunch of well-dressed hags, then turned into a rodent, along with a gluttonous boy he met earlier named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick). Once they’re transformed, they meet up with Charlie’s pet Daisy (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth) and scurry back to Charlie’s grandmother to tell her what’s happened. Now afraid that the witches might turn all kids into ‘mouses,’ the foursome hatches a plan to try and stop them before it’s too late.
Unfortunately, it’s at this point that the film loses some of its ‘magic,’ mainly due to some sub-par mouse VFX that can’t capture the expression of live-action actors, and a lack of big or even more inventive set pieces. Earlier on, there’s a great flashback scene where Charlie’s grandma tells him the story of when one of her friends was turned into a chicken by a witch, but after the kids transform, the action remains in the one location with Zemeckis doing very little to try and shake things up. Sure, the mice cause a bit of mischief in the hotel, and the famous third-act dining-room sequence where the witches devour some nasty pea soup isn’t bad, but nothing manages to match the pizzaz of the earlier parts of the film.
The luxurious production design by Gary Freeman, Maleficent (2014), is utterly sublime, and the costumes — chiefly The Grand High Witch’s signature one-sleeve purple dress — by Joanna Johnston, Allied (2016), are excellent and wholly bring the exaggerated characters to life.
The performances are good, too, particularly that of the great Hathaway, who skirts a fine line between cartoonish and frightening. Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures (2016), radiates maternal warmth, although she could probably do this kind of thing in her sleep. The always-reliable Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games (2012), does a satisfactory job in his handful of scenes as hotel manager Mr. Stringer, a part that was played unforgettably by comedian Rowan Atkinson in the ’90 version. Newcomer Jahzir Bruno starts off somewhat stiff but grows into the part of Charlie, whilst both Chris Rock and Kristin Chenoweth (doing voice-work) sound just like themselves, their nonchalant work sometimes pulling me out of the action.
Whether you love it or hate it, this new Witches incarnation remains in line with Dahl’s quirky imagination, with Zemeckis and co. doing the best they can to deliver the goods in today’s digital age. All up, this is a wickedly whimsical family fantasy adventure that’s visually splendid and is a total hoot. Heck, who knows, it may just traumatize a brand-new generation of kids.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie