The Witches (2020)

Ever since he traumatized children across the globe with The Polar Express and its monstrous motion capture computer-generated images, Robert Zemeckis has used his influence and power in Hollywood to make one visual effects extravaganza after the other. Somehow, despite the fact that these projects usually end in financial loss (Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, Welcome to Marwen), the man keeps on going. Zemeckis has been failing upwards in a way that defies pure imagination and his most recent attempt at making child-friendly horror, a new adaptation of The Witches, fails to rise above its limits as shlock that only manages to scare children by cheap and unintentional ickiness instead of deliberate storytelling choices – the kind of choices that once made Zemeckis a visionary back in the days of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film that somehow entertained audiences of all ages while including a truly terrifying villain. 

Based on noted anti-Semite and child hater Roald Dahl’s classic novel The Witches, Zemeckis’ film transplants the action and characters from England and Scandinavia to a much more thematically heavy 1968 Alabama. As young Charlie (Jahzir Bruno) wanders around the chosen hiding place he and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) are using to shelter themselves from the threat of witches, the film brushes up against thematic material of racism and classism in the Civil Rights era Southern United States. For the most part, it shies away from confronting the subtext of its two main heroes being Black and lower class while evading the attacks of the Grand High Witch, a wealthy white woman who feigns kindness to lure in her victims before turning them into mice. There’s small moments here and there where the film suggests that it might lean into that material, such as one when a Black bell boy at the hotel looks on at Charlie and his grandmother arrive at the hotel. He seems incredulous that a Black woman is checking into the place; it’s an establishment populated by white people and resembles a grand plantation ripped out of the pages of a Margaret Mitchell novel. 

If there’s any reason to turn on HBO Max and press play on The Witches, it’s Anne Hathaway. She goes for full-blown camp goddess status as the Grand High Witch. She snarls, cackles, and roars in an accent that resembles a mix of Gollum and Melania, with a touch of Scottish and German for extra punch. Her over-the-top movements and the way she turns a simple word like garlic into “gorrrrrLICK” would make Anjelica Huston proud. She relishes the new visual effects that remove the more stereotypically negative attributes of the titular witches that were based in anti-Semitism and goes full throttle with the reptilian and avian attributes they have this time: extended, snake-like mouths, single toe clawed feet, and mutated hands with only two long, talonlike fingers and a thumb. Hathaway is nothing short of fabulous in a movie that badly needs energy. Her recital of the line “you may remove your WIGS!” alone is worth the price of admission; or a stream in this case. She’s everything this movie lacks: laughter and thrills with a touch of melodramatic scenery chewing. 

There’s a bit of fun to be had whenever Hathaway is on-screen with her The Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci (who plays the hotel manager), but the film’s pleasures are gone whenever Hathaway vanishes from the scene. Kristen Chenoweth and Octavia Spencer do the best they can with their barely sketched out characters, while Jahzir Bruno does his best to impress. It’s a good child performance, and not bad for a first time actor, especially considering the fact that he has to deal with a plethora of special effects and being transformed into a CGI mouse. 

There’s real potential here for a Halloween classic that creeps out children and provides a nasty mean streak for the adults to enjoy, but it shouldn’t have been directed by this Zemeckis. If Roger Rabbit era Zemeckis had directed it, we would be talking about this movie very differently; unfortunately that Zemeckis is long gone. Despite the bone-cracking body horror, decent visual effects, and fun costume design, The Witches is another bland cog in the Zemeckis machine with little to offer. If you’re not a fan of Hathaway, stick to the original.

C

C Review

coleduffy View All →

21, born and raised in Boston. Mamma Mia wine mom personality. Jerry Gogosian of the film world.

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