Hathaway Helms a Ho-Hum Adaptation of Dahl’s Classic.
DIRECTED BY ROBERT ZEMECKIS / 2020
Roald Dahl’s The Witches is Robert Zemeckis’s latest special-effects-filled, family friendly extravaganza. Originally intended to be released in theaters in October of 2020, it was pulled from the schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was released straight to the HBO Max platform on October 22nd 2020, instead.
This latest adaptation of Dahl’s book (following Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 version) first bubbled to life in 2008 when Guillermo del Toro wanted to make an animated film of the property. The project never really got off the ground until Zemeckis came along and was attached as director. Del Toro still retains a co-screenwriting credit, alongside Zemeckis and Kenya Barris.
The movie’s plot rather faithfully follows the outline of Roald Dahl’s novel, save for transposing the location from England to Alabama. Zemeckis has said in interviews that he wanted a more “Southern Gothic” vibe for his movie. I don’t think he quite achieves that effect (there’s a distressing lack of swamps and Spanish moss for one), but we’ll let that pass. He also moves the timeframe back to the 60’s.
The story, narrated by Chris Rock, follows a young boy (unnamed in the book, and likewise unnamed here for… reasons?) who is sent to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after his parents are killed in a car accident. One day, the boy has a run in with a strange woman, who has a rasping voice and a pet snake. The woman offers the boy some sweets, but he is scared by her and runs off. Telling his grandmother about the encounter, the grandmother realizes that woman was a witch, and if there’s one witch around, there must be others!
There is a lot of setup and exposition in this film. When it’s Spencer talking about the qualities and peculiarities of witches, it’s not so bad. She has a warm and homey way of delivering information, but after a while it gets to be a bit much. Plot elements are discussed, then repeated, and then repeated again. In their series on the movies of Robert Zemeckis the Blank Check podcast has complained about him not trusting the audience to get points that are being made. This leads to Zemeckis highlighting his point, then underlining it, then drawing arrows to it, and then asking if we’re sure we got it in the next sentence. This unfortunate tendency is in full flower here. How many times must we be reminded that the witches’ special soup has NO GARLIC!
Anyway, fearful of the witches, the boy and his grandmother flee to a fancy hotel to stay. Little do they realize that at that very same hotel, there is a gathering of witches, led by the Grand High Witch, played with relish by Anne Hathaway. Hathaway is not the most obvious choice for someone to play a Grand High Witch, but the actress throws herself into the role with such gleeful abandon it’s clear the choice was a good one.
The Grand High Witch reveals her evil plot to rid the world of all children by having her witches open up candy stores, selling candy laced with a magic potion that will turn children into mice. Our protagonist overhears this plot, and watches as the Grand High Witch demonstrates her potion on a English boy named Bruno. When the hero is caught, he, too, is turned into a mouse. The mouse-ified hero, Bruno, and the hero’s pet mouse (now revealed to be a young girl, previously turned into a mouse) now have to escape and prevent the witches from carrying out their terrible scheme.
Zemeckis is a filmmaker who knows how to construct extraordinarily tight movies filled with clockwork precision. He’s not done that here. The Witches is filled with moments that are just one more draft away from being perfect, but as it stands don’t have a satisfying payoff. Just think of what the same man who directed the climactic sequences of Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit could do with the bit where the mouse is trying to pour a magic potion into some soup. None of the scenes build up enough tension before Zemeckis resolves them and then moves on to the next sequence.
When a filmmaker makes a big swing for the fences and misses, the results are still interesting. Zemeckis has made such swings before with varying degrees of success (Roger Rabbit and Welcome to Marwen for example). But Zemeckis doesn’t swing at all during The Witches. He’s playing it safe the whole way through, and while the movie isn’t terrible, it’s not very notable. Even on a basic visual level. One can usually count on at least one distinctive camera move or tracking shot in a Zemeckis film — the “mirror shot” in Contact, or the “under the floor” shots in What Lies Beneath just to name two examples — but there’s no equivalent here. The movie is fine, but like the witches’ soup, it just doesn’t contain any garlic.
Did I mention the soup doesn’t have garlic?