Writing on Robert Zemeckis’s precariously crafted re-adaptation of Roald Dahl’s cult favorite 1983 novel The Witches harbors a slight level of heartache in having to accept the mark has been missed again. We may know Zemeckis as the man once responsible for magically merging cartoon characters into reality (and vice versa), making time travel a bit more possible in our lifetime, and granting Denzel Washington the chance at a newfound screen vulnerability. That creative touch has waned a trifle in the time since 2012’s Flight; any of his work beyond Polar Express has proven wildly inconsistent, and his co-mingling with the macabre is perhaps the apex of that well intended muddling.
It may not help at all there are far too many cooks in this kitchen, a reflection on the stilted journey taken for this remake. Originally conceived as Guillermo Del Toro’s first foray into stop-motion, it would eventually be stuck in development hell, to the point that GDT, who could have had an easier time keeping focus with the dark undertones, would settle for scribe and producer credits, shared between Zemeckis, Gravity’s Alfonso Cuarón, and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. It’s the latter’s voice who poses the sore thumb mismatch for this clearly stripped of any opportunities to pit fear in youngsters’ stomachs, trading that for aging filmmaking flourishes and a supposedly relatable backdrop.
Barris flips things in an awkward though admirable direction, making the lead character, here named Charlie (newcomer Jahzir Bruno) black, and setting the film in Alabama at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, late 1968. Moreover, adding in Chris Rock to emphasize that point in a tongue-in-cheek narrator role. In no way does it dig too deep into any sort of systemic racism, though a few subtle, if not vaguely stereotypical jabs are scattered throughout. Recently orphaned after a fatal crash on an icy road, he comes to stay with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer). Depression sinks in, with the pair unable to bond until he is tempted with food, and later a pet. Specifically, an intelligent mouse named Daisy. It’s not too long after that their newfound optimism is stifled when after a chance encounter with a shadowy figure inciting a stubborn cough, Grandma reveals she and the mystery girl are both of the same cloth. They’re both witches, Zelda (Josette Simon) is not exactly a nice one. She’s one in a congregation of rather nefarious apparitions, led by their high council authority (Anne Hathaway).
Their shared histories converge just as the pair and their pet pull in a favor to lay low and spend some time at a very swanky seaside resort. “Witches only prey on the poor”, Grandma snidely quips in effort to calm jangled nerves. The young hero inadvertently discovers the council member’s best way of spreading evil. By luring children into their traps by way of specialty chocolates laced by a potion bottled in mini Absolut containers with transformative properties. Namely, rodents. Charlie, Daisy (eventually voiced by Kristen Chenoweth), and a third victim, the chubby British kid Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) have to pool their resources together to turn the tables on these witches, which is easier said than done, and certainly not without some shortcuts that affect the thematic plight.
Zemeckis may not be fully to blame here, it is more his process as a director when he’s in full on fantasy mode. While that may have given us plenty of gems, there were a few clunkers. He might never be forgiven for reusing his Forrest Gump formula on the true story of a trauma survivor’s coping mechanisms in Welcome to Marwen. What Nicolas Roeg and Jim Henson did in 1990 with Dahl’s manuscript shrieked cautionary terror from the very get go. Zemeckis sees no reason to follow in those footsteps, aiming for a more sanitized spin of Dahl’s manuscript. Instead of realistic puppets, boundary-pushing prosthetics and inventive POV photography, we get stale CGI characterizations and faux pop-fabricated scenery. Cute as they appear, they are far from a specialty in 2020. Functional, yes. Typical of Zemeckis’ consistent pace, very likely. Ripping off Ratatouille by an insane degree in spots, unashamedly.
Many of the director’s frequent contributors lend time, and a certain level of effort to pumping up the charm, but not so much to distinguish away from Robert’s past efforts that it’s all by now a generic cadence. Don Burgess’s enthusiasm for wide tracking shots holds firm here, as does Alan Silvestri’s OD-on-whimsy musical trills, and Joanna Johnston’s period-accurate costuming, vaguely echoing Marit Allen’s near-petrifying expression of coven culture on the original.
That really cannot be said for Hathaway, who sees a glorious opportunity to flex her comedic chops, but van only go so far in the shadow of Anjelica Huston, who forever immortalized the High Council Witch. Her presence on screen amid her cronies screams over-the-top, with the Eastern European first lady accent nailed down accurately. Bruno and Eastick offer authenticity in their collective sense of childlike curiosity, while Chenoweth is somewhat the lame duck of the rodent trio. While her character might make for a quirky pet after having been taught a few tricks, we didn’t get much in the way of trickery that wasn’t already put to manageable use in, perhaps Rio.
Elsewhere, Miss Spencer cannot easily shake her conventional wisdom act, we’ve seen too much of her in that level of performance in a decade that’s seen her stock rise. The only performer who busts out without even trying, in an effortless screen turn is Stanley Tucci, portraying the snidely, twirl-able handlebar mustache wearing hotel manager looking to keep order against Hathaway, his former Devil Wears Prada associate. He is agile, nimble, and physically adaptive without being asked, going the extra mile for the camera even if most of what he’s playing with is far from realistic.
Bless Mr. Rock for trying to set the tone with his wise aging tenor voice, though his presence would make more sense if The Witches had tried a bit harder to lean closer to the novel. It fails to lean just hard enough on the good vs evil battle until it was convenient, much close to the tail end than any of us would’ve preferred. Zemeckis spends the entire film figuring out just what he got himself into, and we’re all along for the very awkward, squeaky-clean ride. Like a weak offering at Disneyland, but missing of any salt, sugar, or even garlic, which just makes it even worse. The danger, the fright, the mere quirkiness of Roald Dahl’s writing is shaved away in effort to keep wary parents from not going overboard. No doubt, the target audience, skewered down significantly here will be pleased by the CGI cuteness and storybook simplemindedness. This could easily be the last straw for Zemeckis’s Hollywood hit parade, but he could easily surprise a waiting audience yet again. For now, unless the kids are not ready to handle the macabre just yet, it’d be wise to skip this remake, and look toward Roeg’s Pan-European horror masterclass of the same name. At least then, actual things for the greater good of film are bound to happen. (D+; 2/5 Horns Up!)
The Witches is currently streaming on HBO Max; rated PG for scary images/moments, language and thematic elements; 106 minutes.