THE WITCHES is the latest film from Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) based on the fantasy-adventure book of the same name, which centers around a young boy who has an unfortunate run-in with a coven of witches. The film stars Anne Hathaway (Ocean’s 8), Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games films), Kristin Chenoweth (TV’s “Glee”) and Chris Rock; with newcomer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno (TV’s “Atlanta”) and Codie-Lei Eastick (Holmes & Watson).
To best describe the plot of the film, I’ll turn to the official synopsis: “Reimagining Dahl’s beloved story for a modern audience, Zemeckis’s visually innovative film tells the darkly humorous and heartwarming tale of a young orphaned boy (Bruno) who, in late 1967, goes to live with his loving Grandma (Spencer) in the rural Alabama town of Demopolis. As the boy and his grandmother encounter some deceptively glamorous but thoroughly diabolical witches, she wisely whisks our young hero away to an opulent seaside resort. Regrettably, they arrive at precisely the same time that the world’s Grand High Witch (Hathaway) has gathered her fellow cronies from around the globe – undercover – to carry out her nefarious plans.”
Narrating the film is actor/comedian Chris Rock, explaining to the audience, via a series of slideshow, the history of witches, and his exposure to the coven as a young child. We then meet our Hero Boy (played by Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), who is dealing with the trauma of losing his parents in a fatal car accident. Bruno does a terrific job of capturing the audience’s heart, both as a child grieving a tremendous loss while also finding himself through an unimaginable encounter that changes him forever. Helping him on his journey is that of his Grandma (played by Octavia Spencer, who is just as splendid as usual), who is lovable yet stern and willing to do whatever she can to protect her grandson. Not only is she dealing with the loss of her daughter, her grandson’s mother, and a curse placed on her by the Witches, but she is also making sure to safeguard her grandson from the horrors of these witches; luckily, she’s much more experienced in that field than we could have expected. Then there is Anne Hathaway, who takes on the iconic role of the Grand High Witch originally made famous by Anjelica Huston’s performance in the 1990 film. Hathaway gives it her all, bringing out an over-the-top, highly “extra” performance. Believe me when I say, I wanted nothing more than for her to absolutely crush this role; but unfortunately, her performance felt too uneven and way too exaggerated.
After our Hero learns about the horrific nature of these Witches, he gets some surprise help from his own pet mouse, Daisy, played by Kristin Chenoweth. Once I was able to put the voice to a name, I couldn’t picture anyone else but Chenoweth in that role. Our Hero also finds help in the way of a bumbling child named Bruno, played by Codie-Lei Eastick, who looks like he was plucked right out of a Willy Wonka movie. After our Hero and Bruno are turned into mice, the three of them (including Daisy) must do whatever it takes to get this magical kid-changing-into-mice potion from the Grand High Witch, thus hoping to end her reign of terror so as to protect the rest of the children throughout the world. And let’s not forget Stanley Tucci, who plays the hotel manager, Mr. Stringer, giving his standard Stanley Tucci performance, which I don’t mean as a slight against him because he’s always a joy to watch.
As for the story itself, it, for the most part, follows the same beats as Roald Dahl’s original story, with changes being the location of the film (Alabama instead of England). I will say, the film hit a lot different than when I originally watched the 1990’s version as a kid. Back then, I was terrified of the Witches, especially the Grand High Witch. It’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen the film and, having now watched this rendition, I can honestly say I kind of relate to the Witches in the sense that kids can be a pain in the ass. I’m not saying I want to eat them or kill them, but you know, I also wouldn’t mind them being quiet at all times (I’m only half-joking). Also, I found that there was a lot of subtext that I hadn’t picked up on as a kid but most definitely did in watching this version. For example, when Grandma and her grandson arrive at this beautiful, luxurious hotel they are treated much differently due to their skin color, even though Grandma is more than able to afford the room. I appreciated the subtle, and not so subtle, approach to certain topics (such as racism) that were weaved into the narrative. Furthermore, there’s a lot to unpack when Grandma mentions how these Witches only care about snatching the poor and those that won’t be missed; an important topic, especially within the BIPOC community, which has become much more focused this year with the upcoming election.
Now for the visuals. I honest to God tried my hardest not to compare this to the original. I TRIED. However, this film goes to show that the magic of practical effects can’t be duplicated with CGI. The reveal of Anjelica Huston in the 1990 version of The Witches was downright terrifying (and still is today), yet the reveal of Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch left a lot to be desired. Sure, her wide mouth looked kind of creepy with the jagged teeth and all, but between that and her elongated arms, used to try to snatch the kids (as mice) in an air duct, it reminded me too much of a cross between Pennywise and Kuchisake-onna. It lacked the pizazz of what the original film had and, as hard as I tried, I can’t ignore that. That said, there were some nice visual touches such as during a rainstorm when Grandma is explaining to her grandson about how to tell if you’ve run across a Witch. The pattern of the rain on the window made shadows on the wall to illustrate the story. There was also a scene where the Grand High Witch’s rage is in full effect as she takes out one of her lackeys who ends up melting and, poof! fades away. Additionally, the set design and the costumes were absolutely divine and some of the best parts of the film.
Ultimately, writing a review for THE WITCHES is tough. Though this film didn’t work for me, that’s okay because, in the end, this is a film that is for a new generation. I was insanely impressionable when I watched the ’90s version and ever since then the Grand High Witch has been embedded in my brain. Who’s to say that this rendition won’t have the same effect on a kid who watches it today? That’s the beauty of art. It’s subjective and we can all have our own reaction to it. Ultimately, I wish Zemeckis and the team worked at combining the CGI and practical effects to allow for better horror elements in the film. Producer Guillermo del Toro talked about wanting to originally make this into a stop-motion animated film and THAT would have been quite a film to watch. The film has a lot of heart, it shows the power of family and those we choose to bring into our folds, but, in the end, it lacks the spark to make this a memorable film. THE WITCHES arrives on HBOMax October 22.