The Witches (2020)

Roald Dahl’s The Witches | 2020 | rated PG | starring Jahzir Bruno, Ann Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock (VO) | directed by Robert Zemeckis | 1 hr 46 mins |

The 2020 Halloween season was so bare with real horror that I almost would have welcomed a new Saw or Paranormal Activity or even a Platinum Dunes remake with open arms. Instead the big movie was HBO Max’s original remake of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Most intriguing about it is the inclusion of director Robert Zemeckis, a filmmaker we long ago lost to proving the storytelling ability of motion-capture CGI over old fashioned storytelling, back in the cockpit helming a story that mixes humans with CGI mice. It’s a visually delicious film, Zemeckis’ best in a long time, but it’s an ok movie.

A young boy hero (Jahzir Bruno) moves in with his grandma (Octavia Spencer) after the death of his parents. Grandma opens his eyes to the existence of witches in this world and when they have a run in with a child-hating witch they escape to a lavish Alabama hotel, where it just so happens is hosting a conference of witches in which the Grand High Witch (Ann Hathaway) is about to disperse a plot to rid the world of children. When the young boy catches them, he is turned into a mouse and along with 3 mice friends and grandma scale the hotel to stop the witches.

My childhood memory of the 1990 adaptation of The Witches is simply that it was scary. Of course it was, it was directed by a real horror director, Nicholas Roeg (Don’t Look Now). The new version from Zemeckis is an entertaining, shallow, visual ride, fueled up on CGI and theatrical camp and is not scary in the least. It is not a family film, it is a kid’s movie, deliberately scripted to explain the plot in a way a kid would understand. That’s all fine. It will probably inspire many kids to imagine the fun of having an adventure as a tiny mouse. But that doesn’t mean it still couldn’t be effective for a kid – creepy, scary, exciting, funny, challenging in any way. That this movie has at it’s back the Roeg version just underscores the deficit. Despite a story that sees a global plan to turn all children into mice, the movie has no drive, no ticking clock, no immediate sense of danger. Zemeckis re-vamps the story from rustic England to 1970s Alabama for reasons unknown.

Octavia Spencer is typically delightful as grandma, rattling off all the ways to identify a witch, as is Chris Rock’s narration that introduces us to this world in the first place. It’ Ann Hathaway’s performances as the Grand High Witch that is going to be divisive. She is delivering high camp to the back row here. She floats and screams and tosses all the furniture around, while laying on a thick eastern European accent. The movie even gives her a CGI Itchi the Killer Glasgow Grin to open wide and devour children. It would have been appropriately fine in a slightly wackier version of this movie that kept up with her energy, but Zemeckis is pulling out every theatrical trick in the book to infuse this character with fire and brimstone and doesn’t give the rest of the movie the same manic energy.

Roeg’s film is something of a cult classic in childhood horror. A movie that isn’t afraid to make kids afraid. Roeg uses harsh zoom ins, unsteady dutch tilts and puts the camera on the floor facing up to create a nightmare experience that puts a child in a vulnerable world where literally everything is bigger than they are and they are being enclosed by a crowd of gawking witches. It’s important to distinguish that while I do think children’s movies now definitely cushion children from horrors more than they did in the past, that wouldn’t have necessarily been The Witches problem. It didn’t need to be as creepy or scary as the original – a new take on the story could have been funny, satirical, any number of things. Instead it’s just a tech-dependent director going through the motions. Zemeckis’ The Witches follows the plot almost identically, but with a much more straight forward execution and no original voice or reason to remake the film. Roeg’s film was brought to life with Jim Henson puppetry and ghoulish disgusting practical make-up effects. We don’t do that anymore. In 2020 we just give Ann Hathaway a CGI Glasgow Grin.

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