Witchy Woman

Robert Zemeckis’s ‘The Witches’ is freakish, not in the best way

Freakish and not in the best way, this second film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s deliciously dark children’s book The Witches glosses over creepy quirks for shiny shocks. It serves up wicked ways with a heavy dose of Americanized schmaltz, tamping down the uncanny and playing up the unnuanced. In its latest incarnation as a Robert Zemeckis movie on HBO Max, The Witches transposes its coven of child-hating hags from Britain to Alabama, losing its Old World mystique, and makes its bald, wig-wearing, toeless malefactors downright generic. Plus, someone gets bitten in the crotch. In the words of the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), do not expect “maximum rrree-sults!”

THE WITCHES ★★(2/5 stars)
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno
Running time: 105 min

The story’s contours remain the same. When his parents die in a car accident, a young boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) goes to live with his grandma (Octavia Spencer) and learns that witches are real. After a close call with some menacing magic, the duo take sanctuary at a deluxe seaside resort, where—surprise!—the hotel happens to be unwittingly hosting a mass convention of the sartorially incognito succubi. Their plan: feed every child everywhere a chocolate bar laced with Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker. Turn the kids into mice and rid the world of them and their hideous scent, which to a witch smells like dogs’ droppings. “Exterrrminate the smelly brrrats!” as the Grand High Witch would say in her nondescript Eastern European accent.

Speaking of whom, the film has clearly miscast Anne Hathaway. There’s nothing villainous about Hollywood’s favorite put-upon victim, an adorable dork who won an Oscar by literally starving herself into a warbling waif. At least the previous film version, Nicolas Roeg’s kooky but somewhat compromised 1990 iteration, had the good sense to get terrifying glamorpuss Anjelica Huston, who writhed and shrieked her way through all the demonic shenanigans with domineering, tyrannical glee. She also added just the right touch of kink: her quivering physical anticipation before turning a boy into a mouse is disturbingly onanistic.

That’s what you get when you also hire Roeg, a director well acquainted with the perverse. You can’t make Performance, Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bad Timing without a more-than-passing familiarity with the twisted impulses of the human psyche. His trademark fish-eye lenses and handheld camerawork maintained an unsettled vibe throughout. Also: look closely and you’ll notice a few of the actors playing witches are actually men in drag. What do you get with Zemeckis? The man who brought you Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump, and The Polar Express does not do transgressive. He does heartwarming.

And heartwarming is what this millennial version of The Witches wants, weirdly enough. Dahl could be merciless and misanthropic in his books, but he radiated a genuine warmth for hard-knock underdogs with an unbroken spirit. Like clockwork, Zemeckis serves up expected dollops of pep talks and reassuring bromides, in turn transmogrifying the story’s requisite menace into leaden suspense. He hones in on the hearth but never dares touch the flame. Which is a pity, because childhood is all about getting burnt.

Zemeckis also smooths out Dahl’s political incorrectness. “Witches aren’t women at all—they’re demons,” explains Octavia Spencer’s grandma. The author would disagree. “A witch is always a woman,” he says in the book’s preface. The man who wrote Switch Bitch doesn’t mince words.

That’s not to say he hates the fairer sex. Dahl’s grandma smokes black cigars and pontificates about her days as a witch hunter. She’s a badass. She also discourages children from bathing regularly, since dirt hides their scent from the witches. That was also Dahl’s charm: he was a child at heart, and loved subverting parental authority. Zemeckis’ version reeks of adult supervision. When her grandson suggests that maybe he shouldn’t bathe, Spencer’s grandma snipes back, “Child, don’t test me!” Ugh.

Also a headscratcher: making the boy and his grandma African American. It’s admirable that the filmmakers want to broaden such an Anglo tale—Dahl’s family was from Norway, and the grandma in The Witches is originally Norwegian—but there doesn’t seem to be any reason other than a token play for diversity.

There’s now an intriguing whiff of bigotry in the story, which here is set in the American South of 1969, but The Witched doesn’t explore it much. The Grandma throws out a line about how witches generally pray on the poor and disenfranchised, and how fewer people will notice if a Black child goes missing—a promising way to enrich the book’s themes. But Zemeckis drops the notion as soon as the Grand High Witch shares her ambitious plans for a comprehensive, colorblind child holocaust. Black-ish creator Kenya Barris is a credited screenwriter, which seems sadly apt because the film is really more Blackish than it is Black.

Props to Zemeckis, though, for sticking to the spirit of the book’s original ending. In the Roeg version, there’s a happy resolution, with a reversed curse and a sense of restoration—a twist that smacks more of the Jim Henson Company, which produced the film. In this latest take, Zemeckis stays true to Dahl’s coda with a spirited elementary-school-style call to arms. One wonders if co-screenwriter Guillermo del Toro might have had some influence in trusting audiences with an ending that insists on accepting change, even capitalizing on it, rather than pining for some regressive notion of normal.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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