HBO Max's The Witches casts the wrong kind of spell: Review
Filmmakers have rarely been able to resist to the wicked, whimsical children's novels of Roald Dahl: Tim Burton with his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Steven Spielberg and The BFG, Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox. (Multiples, too, tend to abound; neither Burton nor Spielberg were the first to put those particular books on screen.)
But never perhaps have so many piled onto a single property as on this 2020 rendition of The Witches: a project officially helmed by Robert Zemeckis, though he shares producing credit with two other Oscar-winning directors, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro, and the screenplay with both del Toro and black-ish creator Kenya Barris.
That's a whole lot of auteur for one film to carry — too much, it turns out, despite a welcome update in the cast's diversity and a deliriously loony performance by Anne Hathaway. The setting has been shifted from '80s England to 1968 Alabama and gained a loose, wisecracking narrator voiced by Chris Rock, who appears in flashback on screen as an unnamed little boy played by doe-eyed newcomer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno.
Abruptly orphaned in the opening scenes, the still-grieving boy goes to live with his beloved grandmother (Octavia Spencer), a pillowy, ferocious envoy of tough love and floral housedresses. For her, witches are old news; they're not women, she tells him, but "demons in human form" — bald, clawing creatures who hide their bloodlust under wigs and gloves and leering lipsticked smiles.
What luck, then, that an entire coven seems to have followed them to the seaside Southern resort the pair have escaped to, a grand old hotel overseen by the fussily officious Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci). And that the very room below them is occupied by the Grand High Witch herself (Hathaway). With her blond Tippi Hedren hair, tailored suits, and indeterminate accent — vaguely Germanic, with a dollop of Scottish brogue and just the lightest spritz of Borat — she looks like a swish European headmistress, but she has not come to teach the children; her scheme, her dream, her one desire is to turn them all into little mice ("miiiiiiice") and squish them.
Lovers of the original 1983 book and of Nicolas Roeg's 1990 screen adaptation, both legion, will no doubt come with their own imprints and expectations. Hathaway's take is generally much sillier than the elegant hauteur offered up 30 years ago by Angelica Huston, but scarier too; often terrifying, in fact, in a way that feels disconcertingly mature for its target audience. That unnerving physicality — cracked Joker grins, herky-jerky limbs, bodies that bend and stretch like melting clocks — may just be the Del Toro of it all, though it tends to read even odder against the cozy domestic scenes, Disneyfied rodents, and slapstick comedy slotted in between.
Zemeckis, a modern film giant whose canonized hits (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, Cast Away) have given way more recently to perplexing misses like 2018's Welcome to Marwen, stays slavishly faithful to certain aspects of the original text but seems to discard other large chunks at will. Much of the movie's look has the heightened unreality of his 2004 CG apogee The Polar Express, and that also tends to carry over to the story, with its dodge-and-weave pacing and peculiar tone. From the beginning, Dahl's novel has had its own detractors; many called it misogynist, or simply unfit for kids. This Witches, alas, has the misfortune of doubling down on all the late writer's eccentricities, while somehow finding only a fraction of his magic. C