“The Witches” stars Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, and Chris Rock. Released on HBO Max on October 22, 2020, the film is about a boy who comes face to face with a group of evil witches.
The film is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who also directed films such as “Back to the Future”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Forrest Gump”, “The Polar Express”, and “The Walk”. It is based on the 1983 children’s novel of the same name by Roald Dahl. It’s not Halloween without a few evil witches raining on your parade. The month of frights and scares continues with the latest adaptation of Roald Dahl’s most daring children’s novel about a young boy who turns into a mouse and a bunch of witches who plot to kill every single child in existence. Fun for the whole family. The book was first adapted into a film back in 1990, which was directed by Nicolas Roeg and produced by Jim Henson, and has retained a cult following for many years since its debut. It was praised by critics and audiences for its wicked and witty tone and Anjelica Huston’s performance, although Roald Dahl had a much different opinion on it. With how popular the book and its film adaptation are, it would make perfect sense for Warner Brothers to attempt to recapture the magic with the help of two talented filmmakers, Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo del Toro (who serves as co-producer and co-writer). This was originally set for a global theatrical release this month before the studio decided to put its streaming service, HBO Max, to good use, proving that once again, streaming services are the way to go during this unfortunate time. I haven’t really got into the 1990 version that much, but I was interested in it regardless because of the talent involved, both onscreen and off. Were they enough to conjure up a scary good time for families? Let’s find out.
Set in 1960s Alabama, the story follows a young orphaned boy (played by newcomer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) who lives with his grandmother (Spencer) at the hotel. The boy comes across a conference full of witches lead by the Grand High Witch (Hathaway). These witches are no joke as they despise children with a passion and are planning on getting rid of them by turning them all into mice. Yes, mice. Every woman’s worst nightmare. When he gets turned into a mouse himself thanks to the Grand High Witch’s potion, the boy gets the help of two other children who were also turned into mice (voiced by Codie-Lei Eastick and Kristin Chenoweth respectively) to foil the witches’ scheme for good. The film follows the same storyline as Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 version, but with a few changes to make it stand out on its own, such as the setting and having Chris Rock as the narrator. Since I haven’t watched the 1990 adaptation of “The Witches”, the chances of me comparing the two in this review are just as thin as an extremely thick string. So, if you want a review that has someone compare the two versions, you might want to look somewhere else because this isn’t that type of review. Roald Dahl had made several stories that are either charming or creepy or both, and “The Witches” is no exception. The films that are based on those stories have those same traits thanks to the talented filmmakers who successfully brought them to life onscreen, such as Danny DeVito for “Matilda”, Wes Anderson for “Fantastic Mr. Fox”, and even Steven Spielberg for the 2016 adaptation of “The BFG”. With Zemeckis behind the camera for the latest version of “The Witches”, this could’ve been something that will follow suit with the ones I mentioned. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While it does have an interesting setup, the spell it was trying to cast just straight up fizzled as soon as the main character got turned into a CGI rodent. Starting off with the pros, I thought the cast did a pretty good job with their performances, particularly Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch. Her ravishing accent and her devious charm are the big things that made her performance a show-stopping treat despite not providing any effective scares. She’s definitely one of my favorite parts of the film, hands down. Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci also did pretty well as the boy’s grandmother and Mr. Stringer respectively. As for Jahzir Kadeem Bruno as the boy, I would say that this is one of the “child actor” performances that I simply didn’t mind. My biggest problem with his character, however, was how he was developed, especially after he got turned into a mouse. He just straight up has the courage needed to take on the witches as soon as he has the fur and whiskers. Did the witch put a dash of confidence oil in her potion or something? The film does have its share of messages and a little bit of charm in its scenarios, but everything about them just felt a bit rushed or bland to me. If the screenwriters took the time to further develop the messages and the characters, this would’ve been a pretty solid adaptation. Robert Zemeckis is known for his imaginative sense of storytelling that consists of visual imagery, heart-pounding action, and heartfelt drama, which helped the likes of “Forrest Gump” “The Walk” and “Cast Away” become critical darlings. While some of the Zemeckis charm can be found in “The Witches”, along with some passable CGI effects, his style of storytelling was severely lacking in terms of his direction and his screenplay. The screenplay lacked any strong depth in its characters and the plot, and the direction felt pretty clunky in terms of its tone. It was attempting to be a fun and frightening family film that combines kid-friendly scares with the fun shenanigans of being a mouse, but it wound up being a scare-free mockery instead. It’s somehow charming, like I said before, but it wasn’t highly entertaining enough to make me want to watch it again.
Overall, as a film that’s supposed to be fun, dark, and spellbinding, Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” is disappointedly tame. It does have a couple of delightful moments to make it watchable, including the performances from Hathaway and Spencer, but sadly, they weren’t enough to put a spell on me due to its average characters and its bland plot. It’s pretty frustrating when you have two popular filmmakers behind the camera and they come up with something that’s just…fine, which is better than straight-up garbage, but still. I didn’t mind it existing since it gave me a reason to check out the 1990 version in the near future. However, as someone who looks at it as its own film, I would have to say that this is one of the weakest films that Zemeckis has directed so far in his career. If you’re highly interested in it because of its main leads, it’s worth watching for those reasons alone.