By Nadia Dalimonte
Anne Hathaway in The Witches (2020)
The Witches, the latest reimagining of Roald Dahl’s 1983 book of the same name, boasts plenty of talent in front of and behind the camera. Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro both have producing credits, and the latter co-wrote the screenplay with Black-ish writer Kenya Barris. Robert Zemeckis has directed many special effect vehicles throughout his career, sometimes to the detriment of a story. Funnily enough, the more advanced technology has become, the more distracting the effects in his work appear to be. Earlier films such as the Back to the Future trilogy and Death Becomes Her incorporate practical visuals that fit well with the imaginative stories. But in more recent years, his over-reliance on effects has become a distraction, as is the case with his adaptation of The Witches.
Following in the footsteps of Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 film adaptation starring Anjelica Huston, this new version does not deviate very far from the book. In some ways it sticks even closer to the source material, while also bringing in new perspectives. This story is set in 1960s Alabama, where a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) goes to live with his grandma (Octavia Spencer) after his parents’ death. The beginning focuses intently on the aftermath of loss, exploring the young boy’s emotions with a level of patience that helps establish the bond between him and his grandma. With love and care, his grandma slowly brings him out of his grief, and the two become more closely knit. But another shadow is cast upon them, from evil forces his grandma evidently knows a lot about…witches. As she says to her grandson, once a witch enters your life, you can never truly escape them. This sentiment is put to the test during a trip to the grocery store, where the young boy encounters a witch. When the grandma realizes what he saw in detail, the two hurriedly leave home to stay in a hotel. The grandma explains the hotel is a safe place as the only guests are wealthy white people, and the witches don’t go after the rich. Themes of class and discourse on how children are valued differently are some of the ways this new adaptation brings a different perspective to a classic story for a new generation.
During their hotel stay, they stumble across a conference of witches led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). The witches’ introduction plays for comical and witty effects, with clear alluding to their ominous intentions. The Grand High Witch asks the hotel concierge, Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci), if he’d call an exterminator should there happen to be any mice infestation. Rest assured, this hotel doesn’t have a mouse problem…not yet. While wandering around, the young boy finds himself in a conference room where the witches are set to meet. This setting is where the familiar reveal takes place; the witches can remove their shoes, gloves, and wigs, all the items that hide their characteristically witchy features. They revel in the clock ticking, as they’ve asked a kid named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) to meet them under the promise of him getting more chocolate. Unraveling as the original story does, the Grand High Witch transforms the young boy and his new friend Bruno into mice. The duo, along with a new character of a pet mouse Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth), must find a way to change themselves back and stop the witches from turning more children into mice. This adventurous side to the story is one of the few highlights of the film, largely thanks to good voice work as well as the strong bond that has been established between the young boy and his grandma.
Comparisons to the 1990 adaptation of The Witches are inevitable. Zemeckis's version is slightly different with the inclusion of new perspectives, an ending that stays closer to the source material, and a much more resonating Hero Boy character. Jahzir’s wonderfully endearing performance as the young boy is delightful to watch. In the young actor’s feature film debut, he carries the story with so much energy and charm. He also has magical chemistry with the great Octavia Spencer, and of the cast the two of them give the most consistently strong performances in the film. That cast includes Anne Hathaway, having a great time playing the Grand High Witch, who turns out to be the most disappointing character. The let down doesn’t necessarily come from Hathaway, whose immersive commitment to a deranged and totally campy performance is fun to watch unravel. It’s the visual creation of her character that is underwhelming, which puts a bit of a damper on all the fun she’s having.
In reference to the 90s adaptation, the biggest draw of that film was Anjelica Huston in the same role, making wickedness look effortless. It’s an absolutely iconic performance with the added layer of creepy, and practical, makeup. The reality-based visuals from what the camera could do, rather than what could be added in post-production, made the Grand High Witch look genuinely creepy. In the new version, CGI takes the place of practical prosthetics, and there aren’t many characteristic effects added in the first place. During the big reveal scene, it turns out that the Grand High Witch looks a lot like the other witches in that conference room: bald with a big carved out smile. She has some new features, like the ability to levitate and stretch her arms to never-ending lengths. But her reveal is underwhelming, mainly because Zemeckis relies so heavily on digital makeup trying to make the character scary-looking. Her capabilities are much more disturbing than her appearance, as seen in an earlier flashback part of the film where she turns a young girl into a chicken. The film expands a bit more on the history between the Grand High Witch and the grandma, as the latter’s past friendship with that little girl explains why she has so much knowledge about witches in general. Hathaway and Spencer also get to share some moments of recognition, and the two play off each other well.
The Witches does just enough to stand on its own with some good performances, beautiful set designs, and newly incorporated themes. But the storytelling gets lost in an over-reliance on visual effects and a brew of distracting elements (including unnecessary narration by Chris Rock and a very odd montage at the end).