There’s a chance that when Robert Zemeckis’s “The Witches” hits HBO Max this week, subscribers who are nostalgic for the 1990 screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story will skip ahead to see how one iconic scene has been updated. It may be because they recall unwittingly becoming horror neophytes at a tender age when, in the Nicolas Roeg original, Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch leads a coven in their de-disguising, resulting in one of the most surreptitiously shepherded shocks of any movie aimed at kids, then or now.
The practical magic of practical effects ensure that Roeg’s movie retains its nightmarish daring. Watching Huston be replaced by a nocturnal beast with a hairy doorknob of a chin and rotten-fruit flesh is as repulsive as it was 30 years ago, and no amount of Conjuring Cinematic Universe entries would prepare today’s tweens for if they ever found themselves watching that film expecting nothing more than suggestions of evil, and finding explicit manifestations of it instead. This time around, a fanged Anne Hathaway dons the Grand High Witch’s wig and wickedly thick vowels as scalp-scratching, stub-footed, taloned witches reveal their true selves—but, much like the lackluster movie surrounding it, it’s a sequence in which Hathaway’s performance treads a line between cartoonish and hair-raising while everything else manages to feel both stiff and over-emphasized. If Roeg’s “The Witches” cast a memorably dark spell on its audience back in 1990, Zemeckis’s take casts a pall on its source material.
2020’s “The Witches” closely follows the narrative footprints of its predecessor (if not stepping directly in its imprint) while switching up its setting in a flat attempt at exploring Civil Rights-era tensions. It also goes to some weary pains to magnify somber story foundations centering on a young Black boy, Charlie, (Jahzir Bruno) who has been recently orphaned as his grandmother (Octavia Spencer, entirely winning, even if it’s in a casting that feels too obvious) tries to cheer him up with show tunes and cornbread. His adjustment to a strange new parent-less world suddenly becomes deadly urgent after a near-fatal encounter with a witch, leading to Charlie and his grandmother deciding to steal away to a luxurious Alabama hotel for a distraction while she educates him on the warning signs to watch out for. Rule No. 1 of the witches in this world: They (still) hate children, and even if we still don’t really learn why, the young boy’s encounter with a towering woman speaking in slithery snarls is enough to understand their desire to skip town for a spell…just not the villainous kind.
Alas, the spritzy hotel doesn’t offer much protection: Turns out it’s playing host to a convention of witches led by Hathaway’s evil sorceress, who, in her most subdued moments, models herself after Meryl Streep’s regal editor who tortured Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Here, she very much does, and as Charlie gets caught up in the demon-in-red-carpet-clothes’s plan to get rid of children once and for all, a self-defeatingly familiar tale unfolds with tired eyes, complete with talking mice, hotel room heists and nasty-looking pea soup.
It’s also a “modernized” tale that feels purposeless, beginning with how the movie is less a reimagination than a bland renovation and continuing with inept racial commentary taking up the full breadth of a single throwaway line from Stanley Tucci’s hotel concierge about being where one may not be wanted (among the movie’s most unforgivable sins, Tucci is wasted here). Sure, you could say that idea bears out when Charlie unwittingly finds himself with a front-row seat to the witches’ gathering, but Zemeckis’s screenplay (with contributions from Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro [yes, that Guillermo del Toro]) doesn’t follow his new thematic threads to any interesting places, aside from an early anecdote from grandmother about growing up in the South. Instead, Zemeckis settles for the go-to family movie motif of how it doesn’t matter Who You Are, but What You Do in the face of uncertainty.
That’s nice and all, but perhaps we can get back to Hathaway’s Grand High Witch for a moment? As far as impersonations of PG-rated villains go, Hathaway’s hag is somewhere between the bumbling mischief of Jim Carrey’s Count Olaf and the pompous menace of Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent. Strutting around Zemeckis’s Taffy-colored sets (Gary Freeman designed this production like it was a candy-themed Dahl story being adapted instead) and making threats through an accent thick with eternal dread, Hathaway honors Huston by playing the role in a more outlandish key. She isn’t the pure threat that Huston is, but she is the element of Zemeckis’s movie that feels the least like caricature--there’s no denying she commits to the comically outrageous as the movie rolls on. And just wait until the first time she turns her arms into nightmarish, accordion-like instruments of claustrophobic demise.
That happens in one early scene after Charlie (mild spoiler!) has been turned into a mouse, in a transformation sequence that’s got about 1/1000th the disturbing up-close-and-personal energy that briefly saw Roeg channeling his inner David Cronenberg. An ensuring “Ant-Man”-esque chase through the hotel’s AC system is one of the few legitimately thrilling moments of ingenuity in a movie that finds itself sorely missing the wicked glee of the 1990 flick early and often. Where the tactile charm of that Jim Henson-produced film emphasized the central threat, the plastic-y aesthetics and needless narration from an older Charlie (Chris Rock) in Zemeckis’s movie suppress it. The dining room-set climax has been extended to a showdown in the Grand High Witch’s lavish suite, but someone forgot to tell Zemeckis that, having seen “Ratatouille,” we might have been expecting more from a tense rodents-in-the-kitchen mission than what amounts to a beat-for-beat recreation of the same sequence in Roeg’s film. (Talking mice, though, have a reputable track record of delighting younger viewers in the family, and so they may be the most reliable source of charm for the ones in yours.) Zemeckis’s strict approach to high-polish redundancy is his movie’s most fatal flaw; it’s enough to make one imagine what producers del Toro or Alfonso Cuarón, two highly accomplished visionaries with a more captivating recent output, would have done in the director’s chair instead. Zemeckis simply struggles to commit to what he’d like his audience to come away most intrigued by, and the result is a foul-tasting witch’s brew of expendable jokes, overbaked emotional appeals, overly busy fantasy images and the aftertaste of a movie that’s the wrong kind of extravagant.
At a point when recent live-action children’s fantasy cinema has had its highs (“Pete’s Dragon”) and its lows (seemingly everything else), “The Witches” is akin to a back-of-the-cereal-box adventure. The kids may very well be distracted by its sugary highs, but it isn’t bound to leave any kind of impression – haunting or otherwise – that Roeg’s left for their parents. Zemeckis strains between an impulse to go grander with the story and a clear recognition of the story’s small-scale delights, with most of the action confined to a single location and the plot almost mischievously clean-cut.
The bitter truth is that we may have seen it coming. Long, long, long past the career highs of the ‘80s when he reeled off “Romancing the Stone,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and the “Back to the Future” adventures (leading us to think he may actually make good on the promise of being Steven Spielberg’s protege), the new century has found Zemeckis stalled at a strange point in his filmmaking journey and due for some kind of reckoning. Once upon a time, we wouldn’t have to have been told twice about Zemeckis bringing a Dahl story to the screen. But that was also before his movies began to be distractedly overstylized, with the director indulging computer-generated effects less for their potential and more as a punctured life raft, depleting medium-lifting possibilities as overzealous aesthetics threaten to drown the whole enterprise. That’s certainly the case here; awkwardly rendered CGI animals never seamlessly blend into the movie’s plastic-y environments, and they also don’t live up to the elegant “How did they do that?” wonder of Roeg’s physical, stuffed mice stand-ins. In Zemeckis’s version, the question viewers may find themselves asking is: “Why did they do that?”
"The Witches" is rated PG for scary images/moments, language and thematic elements. It starts streaming on HBO Max Thursday.
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
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