Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock
Run Time: 106 mins
The Witches is the second film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s fantasy horror 1983 novel about a young orphan who lives with his wise grandmother who is entangled with a coven of witches in a hotel, who are hell-bent on eradicating all children from the world by turning them into mice. The combination of Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo Del Toro is a strange, yet exciting choice to adapt Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, mirroring the strange fit of Steven Spielberg for The BFG. Zemeckis has had a generally strong career with heights such as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, although his last couple of films Allied and Welcome to Marwen weren’t as well received as his other filmography. I found both to be very interesting and a refreshing departure from his normal visual-effects heavy work. Of course, Dahl’s novel was also adapted by Nicolas Roeg back in 1990 and Angelica Huston’s portrayal of The Grand High Witch was very memorable, especially the sequence where she reveals her true appearance, which is a mastery of puppetry work from Jim Henson.
Robert Zemeckis’ rendition of The Witches is entertaining and its heart is in the right place but this could have been directed by anyone – it doesn’t feel like Zemeckis at all. There doesn’t really seem to be much of Del Toro here either, which is odd, as his films are very heavily framed by his authorship.
This version relocates the narrative to the US state of Alabama and changes the race of the main protagonist to African American. This is an interesting choice and contrasts the cold and stark European setting of Dahl’s novel and Roeg’s adaptation. However, the concept is thinly explored and more could have been done here. The opening of the film is strong in that we witness the car accident that orphaned our main protagonist, allowing the audience to emotionally invest in him. There is also a particularly chilling flasback sequence to the Grandmother’s childhood where she crosses paths with The Grand High Witch, although its effect is undone with a juvenile choice of action and sub-par effects.
In fact, rather embarrassingly for a 2020 release, the visual effects generally aren’t particularly convincing. They feel dated, particularly a scene in which a group of mice navigate their way around some vents which feels straight out of an early noughties kids film. This is all the more surprising given that Zemeckis is renowned as a visual director.
The performances are energetic here with Octavia Spencer the highlight as the wise Grandmother but peppered with sass and humour. Anne Hathaway is far more pantomime-like in her performance as The Grand High Witch. She’s rather cringey in parts but there’s no denying that she’s a plausible threat to the main characters. It’s a shame that Stanley Tucci and Chris Rock are under-utilised in their roles, given how they are normally both able to elevate the material.
Overall, The Witches is an entertaining remake and the departures it takes from the book and original film validates its existence. But its lack of authorship and hesitance to further the material by exploring its themes never allow the film to soar when it should. There is probably enough here for younger children to enjoy but for its adult audience, there could have been more substance here to make this a more definitive take on Roald Dahl’s novel.