The Witches (2020)
Written by Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Robert Zemeckis, like I said about John Landis while reviewing An American Werewolf in London, is a director that gave us some fantastic movies in the 1980s and then seemed to fade in subsequent decades. In Zemeckis’s instance, he seemed to keep putting out quality work in the 1990s, but it was the new millennium and deluge of motion capture technologies that took him into a new realm of filmmaking that often hasn’t paid off. These instances always cause me to wonder if all that success ultimately had a negative consequence, removing the things that made Zemeckis’s movies fun because he simply wanted to play with some complicated new toys.
Our Hero is a young boy in 1968 when he loses his parents in a tragic car crash. As a result, the young man goes to live with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer) in a small Alabama town. The Hero is stuck in depression over the loss of his parents, and over time, Grandma helps him open up. Life is going along smoothly until a chance encounter at the general store with a strange woman. Grandma explains that this is a witch and goes on to educate her grandson on these beasts. They appear as women but wear wigs, gloves, shoes, and makeup to hide their true monstrous physiques. The goal of the witches is to wipe out all children whom they find entirely disgusting.
A trip to a Gulf Coast hotel after Grandma becomes ill leads to an encounter with a whole coven of witches. These vile beings have come to the hotel for a gathering where they plan to roll out a secret formula that will transform children into mice. They plan on putting the serum into chocolate and then spreading it across the globe. The Hero befriends another boy, and they quickly become entrapped in the witches’ scheme leading to a wild romp through the hotel while trying to stay discreet.
My favorite thing about this new adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel is that it has been transplanted from England to the American Southeast and the main characters are now Black. The story doesn’t miss a beat because of this change, and it adds a more interesting angle to the original text. The race of Grandma and the Hero does briefly play a part in the story. Their visit to the fancy hotel is met with some questioning, but the hotel manager (Stanley Tucci) quickly backs down, with Grandma shows she isn’t having it. I think so many of Dahl’s characters are working-class, which definitely fits with Black children’s experiences in the American South in the 1960s as Jim Crow was hesitantly being rolled back.
The thing about Roald Dahl’s work was considerably dark for children’s fare, and he has many critics today who dislike his work for that reason. The Witches is one of his darker books, and the 1990 adaptation is a pretty grim picture for little kids. It’s about as close as you can get to a full-fledged children’s horror movie. Even then, that version is pretty rough around the edges and makes some narrative choices that don’t fit. Zemeckis’s version doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. It veers into that grotesque horror territory in moments but then pulls back into the lifeless, bland family film world.
The picture’s biggest problem is that it has a script with so much potential, penned by very talented people but then evolves into a Zemeckis special effects party by the end. Anne Hathaway does an okay job as the Grand High Witch, but she is hidden behind tons of digital effects to make her match Zemeckis’s interpretation of Dahl’s witches. The result is that any character the story should have, quirks & idiosyncrasies, goes out of the window to make something more palatable. There’s an inability to settle on a proper tone, and so the film frequently veers wildly in one direction, moving towards something interesting with commentary on race or class but then slams on the brakes and goes back into mediocre storytelling.
The ending feels incredibly poorly thought out. There’s no weight to the consequences of anything, just a desperate need to make sure everything finishes on an upbeat, happy note. It’s complete with lively music over the end, and it further emphasizes Zemeckis’s growing disinterest in telling stories in his films. It’s clear he is more interested in visual effects technology at this point in his life, and he should probably do that rather than direct films. What a profoundly disappointing venture this was.