A new adaptation of The Witches is set to hit HBO Max in just a couple of days, but does it live up to the source material?
Roald Dahl’s unnerving kids-lit story about a coven of witches bent on turning the children of the world into mice has a brand new cast, a new setting, and a new time period, all of which could have made this thing one hell of a movie to watch. Sadly, despite some incredibly good moments it just never seems to come together.
**There are some light spoilers beyond this point, but nothing that will be too shocking if you’ve read the book or seen the previous film adaptation.
This new film opens, not in Europe, but in 1967 Chicago–complete with narration by Chris Rock–as our young hero (Jahzir Bruno) survives the car accident that kills his parents. He’s collected by his Grandma (Octavia Spencer) who takes him back to her home in Alabama and desperately tries to help the young man heal from his heartbreak.
Soon enough the boy encounters a witch while they’re out shopping for groceries and Grandma, in a panic, decides to whisk them away to a fancy hotel to hide out from the fiendish character reasoning that witches “prey on the poor” so there’s no better place to hide than surrounding yourself with the finest, richest company.
Unfortunately for them, the hotel just happens to be the very same one where a witch’s convention, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), has chosen as their gathering place.
So first, let me say that Octavia Spencer is a brilliant actress who deserves all of the accolades. From her first moment on screen, she is absolutely believable. She is heartbroken, herself, over the loss of her own child, but she is holding things together for her grandson. There is never a moment where we doubt that she will do anything to protect him. She is wise and empathetic and sometimes hilarious and it’s a joy to watch her work.
Likewise, Hathaway attacks her role with relish, pulling out all the stops. She doesn’t just want you to see her as the Grand High Witch, she wants you to believe it. She steals every scene then chews through the scenery, sometimes literally, and delivers her lines with all the subtlety of a rusty chainsaw.
Sadly, the rest of the casting was not so inspired. While Chris Rock was certainly a fun choice for narration, he just felt like he was playing an older Chris Rock rather than really immersing himself in the character he represented. Also, while Stanley Tucci certainly did a fine job as the hotel manager, he felt criminally underused in the film.
And then there’s Kristin Chenoweth cast in the film as a third child/mouse victim of the coven. As youthful as her voice and energy is, there is simply no way she sounded like a child who escaped from an orphanage less then five months prior only to find herself on the wrong end of a witch’s curse. Even granting her wiggle room for the “mice age faster than humans” angle, the voice was simply not right and pulled me completely out of the film multiple times.
What became clear while watching The Witches was that Robert Zemeckis was not entirely sure what kind of film he wanted to make. Over and over again, he would walk right up to the edge of embracing some of the darker aspects of Dahl’s original work, then take a measured step backward. It was as if he was wondering exactly how scary he could get away with being and rather than taking a chance, he played it safe.
When he did decide to go for terror, it comes off as too cartoonish.
Take for example the scene where the witches reveal themselves in the conference room of the hotel. In the previous adaptation, this scene was heightened by a bone-chilling performance by Anjelica Huston and a sound design that made your skin crawl as the witches removed their wigs, scratching their heads, and embracing their wicked selves.
In Zemeckis’s version, it was all just a little too sterile. Oh there are aspects of the characters that are somewhat frightening. They borrowed their split-mouth design from Japanese horror that takes up far too much jagged space on the face and made some interesting choices with the witches’ hands and feet, but we’re left with an almost too-ethereal Grand High Witch floating over her cohorts and delivering a wicked aria in the elevated prose of Dick Dastardly.
She’s cruel, but she’s also just a little too fun to be taken seriously.
One final note, I don’t understand moving the film’s location to 1967 Alabama and then basically ignoring the Civil Rights movement of the 60s. Grandma and grandson are met with hardly any resistance at all when they show up to the fancy hotel owned by white people and staffed almost entirely by people of color. Now, of course, not every film has to have a message, but this ultimately feels like another pulled punch in a film full of them.
Moreover there are moments where they actually seem to embrace certain stereotypes in a way that borders on alarming in 2020. For instance, at one point a maid in the hotel spies the three mice and understandably loses her cool at which point she picks up a broom and begins slamming it down on the floor trying to stun/kill them. For a moment, I could not help but feel that the optics of the scene was a throwback to some of the negative stereotypes we saw in old Tom & Jerry cartoons.
It is difficult to know their intentions with these scenes, but it is certainly something to think about.
Overall The Witches is not a terrible movie. It is, however, a tonally uneven movie that felt unsure of itself, and will no doubt elicit as many riotous shouts of gleeful joy from its audience as it will eyerolls and groans. It certainly did for me.
Check out the trailer below and look for it on HBO Max on October 23, 2020.