The Witches, 2020.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Starring Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Jahzir Bruno, Chris Rock, Codie-Lei Eastick, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson, Eugenia Caruso, Jonathan Livingstone, Zeke Taylor, and Eurydice El-Etr.
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!
When I said Octavia Spencer deserves more major roles, I didn’t mean as a coughing woman that’s either spouting off similes or talking to three horrendously rendered CGI mice. When Robert Zemeckis came up with the idea to make a CGI focused remake of The Witches (also based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl), I’d love to be a fly on the wall to know how the structure turned into the classic story meets an episode of Everybody Hates Chris but with witches. It also remains a mystery what Anne Hathaway is doing with her career recently, seemingly going out of her way to take bad roles, here as the leader of a coven that hilariously looks like Mortal Kombat‘s Baraka when she stretches her mouth wide open, ghastly special-effects and all incapable of scaring even the intended demographic of younger audiences.
Other questions came to mind while watching The Witches, but the most prevalent thought is simply wondering how a story so magical feels so soulless. The answer obviously lies in the overreliance on CGI, but there’s also the determination to remove just about every element from the book that could be considered even remotely horrifying. There’s an overblown sequence halfway into the movie where Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch (someone was certainly high if they thought these effects were decent) demonstrates her abilities which also includes a magic potion capable of transforming a child into a mouse (they do retain their speaking voice) that drags on and on until you don’t even care what they are about to do. Far too often the movie tries to take scenes that should be quick and effective, blowing them up trying to achieve something on a grander scale that doesn’t work.
Robert Zemeckis is unquestionably an imaginative filmmaker, and to his credit, his mind is most definitely working when it comes to sequences of talking mice frantically making use of their luxurious hotel environment to get around and accomplish things (the floaty cinematography that follows them around is also impressive), but everything here feels like it’s on autopilot and lacking heart. Technically the film is sound and competent, especially when it comes to the extravagant 1960’s period piece costume design and layout of the hotel, but it’s all for naught when the actual computer-generated effects are downright terrible and the story itself can’t engage.
For the most part, Robert Zemeckis is sticking to the source material, with the major change being the family at the center of the film is now Black, which is a great creative choice for diversity and representation. However, outside of maybe one line of dialogue (it seems to imply it’s rare Black people stay in such a fancy hotel), going that route with these characters feels entirely wasted unless you happen to REALLY enjoy Chris Rock narrating stories. A few of the witches are also Black so at least it seems the coven is not racist (as far as we know, anyway).
The general gist of The Witches is that it follows an unnamed boy (he is credited as Hero Boy and played fine enough, given the weak material, by relative newcomer Jahzir Bruno) who tragically loses his parents from a car accident, subsequently taken in by his also unnamed grandmother played by Octavia Spencer (who is usually terrific and consistently capable of making lesser works somewhat watchable with her headstrong demeanor and sassy personality). Naturally, The Witches starts off rather sad, although Robert Zemeckis keeps that mood going for so long it’s questionable if he ever had a handle from the beginning on what this movie should be. There are also parts where it seems like Grandmother is out to scare Hero Boy shitless about witches, which is kind of a mean thing to do to someone still grieving over deceased parents.
Nevertheless, Hero Boy believes he has encountered a witch one day in a store which also startled Grandmother, prompting them to pack up and use connections to her cousin to stay in the aforementioned ritzy hotel. As for the witches, they have the simple and classic motivation of hating children, going as far as planning to take money from the hotel to open up various candy shops selling delicious chocolate bars as bait for their brand-new concoction turning them into mice.
The material is decidedly for kids who might not care much about the poor CGI, but the constant tonal swings probably won’t help. It’s hard to tell if the movie wants you to laugh at it or pretend to be scared. Again, there are clever sequences once the story shifts focus more to the mice and it’s clear that Robert Zemeckis had the most fun designing those set pieces, but it’s all hollow and artificial. There is also a discussion to be had that maybe Roald Dahl adaptations lose their fantastical appeal with CGI that can’t properly convey the wonder of his books (The BFG was better but not by much). Take nothing away from Robert Zemeckis being of the most talented filmmakers ever, but his last two films (Welcome to Marwen) and now The Witches have been disastrous misfires and it’s frustrating watching skilled notable actors take part in this empty display of computer wizardry.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com