Anne Hathaway … Grand High Witch
Written by Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro
The Witches Review
Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches is the second adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famed novel, the first being the 1990 film directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Anjelica Houston alongside some wonderful Jim Henson puppetry, and while the technical prowess in this glossy new product is on point, the film misses out on an opportunity to explore the darker themes lingering beneath the surface of Dahl’s text.
The Witches opens with our main protagonist, known in the credits as Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno), witnessing the death of his parents. He goes to live with his Grandma (a terrific Octavia Spencer) and the two eventually bond through music, cornbread, and memories of deceased loved ones.
“Do I feel sorry for you? No. Do I feel bad? Absolutely,” Grandma explains before adding, “It’s a hard life to learn and most folks don’t have to learn it this young, but you do.”
These early scenes are handled so well it’s a bit of a letdown when the film pivots to the actual plot regarding all-powerful witches who kidnap and kill children. Alas, we’re quickly thrust into a number of scenes featuring a hefty bit of expository dialogue regarding the nature of witches — who, we learn, boast elongated smiles, bald heads, large nose holes, razor-sharp claws, and horribly mangled feet featuring one Velociraptor-like toe — and before long Hero Boy and Grandma arrive at a cushy New Orleans hotel where a coven of the vile evil hags, led by the repulsive Grand High Witch (a game Anne Hathaway) are plotting to turn children into mice. Naturally, Hero Boy overhears the plot whilst hiding in a vent, gets discovered and ends up as a mouse along with pudgy Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) and plucky Daisy (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth); and the three newly miced friends must team up with Grandma to thwart the witch’s heinous plan.
Zemeckis’ The Witches is the latest example of a modern remake that has nothing to add to a classic tale aside from updated special effects and a few bits of social commentary. Sure, the new adaption looks great and everyone involved is clearly having a blast with the material (save for Stanley Tucci, curiously cast in a bit role that might as well be an extended cameo), but we saw this same film 30 years ago where it was handled with a little more, ah, pizzazz. Granted, younger audiences may turn their noses up at that film’s dated (though still creative) FX and embrace the newer model with open arms. To each their own. Except, one would expect the director of Forrest Gump and Contact to spend more time reflecting on the deeper aspects of Dahl’s story, particularly in regard to Hero Boy’s ultimate denouement.
Instead, we’re treated to another version of the big scene in which a roomful of witches unmasks and reveal their evil plot, except now its Hathaway who chews on Dahl’s juicy dialogue while Zemeckis goes for broke with the creepy visuals (including a terrific bit where the Grand Witch’s arms extend down a ventilation shaft). And, as before, after this lofty introduction, the witches are promptly killed off in an ending that feels just as anticlimactic here as it did the first go ’round. Why not expand the story into something more? Give us extra backstory on the Grand High Witch … or more Grandma! At the very least the film could attempt to explain why these powerful beings choose to hide from the world under flimsy disguises that cause actual damage to their skin.
Complaints aside, there is still much to enjoy in the colorful production. As stated, the visuals (aside from some dodgy animal effects) are tremendous; and the performances are solid. There are a handful of gags that work well such as when Grandma tries to introduce mouse Bruno to his parents and an early scene in which a young girl transforms into a chicken. Another great moment sees the Grand High Witch blast a fellow witch to smithereens for interrupting her speech before admitting, “She actually asked a good question.”
VFX work is sound, especially whenever the Grand Witch uncorks her true smile, while the cinematography by longtime Zemeckis collaborator Don Burgess is appropriately colorful and warm — a visual aspect that keeps the film from ever feeling too dark even as our young heroes navigate fairly horrific territory.
The film closes with Hero Boy, now older and voiced by Chris Rock (who also supplies the narration), telling his story to a classroom full of children and imploring them to take up arms against the remaining witches hidden throughout the world. It’s a fun exclamation point on an enjoyable film, but also another case of a missed opportunity to dig deeper into Dahl’s mind.
Consensus: Director Robert Zemeckis brings his technical prowess to this modern-day retelling of Roald Dahl’s The Witches and creates an enjoyable, albeit trite family adventure film.
The Witches will debut on HBO Max on October 22!