Witches, The (United States/Mexico, 2020)

October 22, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Witches, The Poster

Once upon a time, Robert Zemeckis was a visionary filmmaker. His early resume reads like a list of well-remembered classics: Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express… But Zemeckis has fallen on hard times and, while 2015’s The Walk showed flashes of the Old Zemeckis, the majority of his recent work has raised questions of whether the well has run dry. The Witches isn’t going to change that. A serviceable but uninspired remake of the 1990 Nicholas Roeg adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, The Witches offers too little not found in the earlier film to make it seem anything more than unnecessary. It’s the same basic story recycled with slightly better special effects and a different cast. As lukewarm as I was toward the Roeg version, I was open to the possibility that Zemeckis could improve upon it – something he proved unable to do.

To be fair, Zemeckis corrects the aspect of the 1990 movie that caused Dahl heartburn. There were numerous aspects of the earlier film that the novelist found fault with but his biggest complaint related to the way in which the ending was changed. For the 2020 edition, many aspects of the setup and backstory have been altered (to go along with the time/location shift from 1984 England to 1968 Alabama)  but the ending remains true to Dahl’s book. The central storyline is largely unchanged and comes complete with a narrator (Chris Rock, who is heard but never seen) to provide all the necessary exposition.

The main character is a young boy (Jahzir Bruno), named Luke in the book but not explicitly identified in the movie, who lives with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) following the deaths of his parents in a car crash. Grandma is old school and teaches her charge that “witches are real.” She then outlines salient facts about them – they’re actually demons in disguise, they can be recognized by several obvious physical features/deformities, and they hate children. Grandma has a history with witches – she and a friend were hunted by them as children – and she believes they may be stalking her again. So she takes her grandson and the two travel to a seaside resort to lie low for a while. Unfortunately, the hotel happens to be the location of a witches’ convention presided over by the Grand High Witch (Ann Hathaway). At the gathering, she announces a new plan to transform all children into mice (who would then be exterminated by unknowing adults). Luke overhears the plot but is discovered and subjected to the Grand High Witches’ transformative powers.

Most of Zemeckis’ films feature at least one memorable shot (like the floating feather in Forrest Gump of Michael J. Fox’s skateboard journey in Back to the Future). The closest The Witches comes is when a cat, spying on Luke and Grandma in their hotel room, executes a convoluted trip back to his mistress, The Grand High Witch. Despite the number of high-profile names involved (Guillermo del Toro wrote the screenplay that became the basis for the shooting script and both del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron received producer credits), the movie never rises above the level of a generic PG-level horror film. It may freak out some kids but adults, for the most part, will be stifling yawns.

What about the special effects? Saying they’re better in 2020 than 1990 wouldn’t be a revelation, but there’s a wrinkle here. The work on Roeg’s film was supervised by Jim Henson (his last live-action feature before his death) and, as such, has a unique style and flavor. Zemeckis’ creatures are sleeker and more “modern,” but they aren’t muppets (which can be seen as either a positive or a negative, I suppose). Additionally, Angelica Huston’s witch makeup (which required eight hours of application) is more unsettling than Anne Hathaway’s, which is a combination of prosthetics and CGI.

The decision to make the central characters in The Witches (2020) African American allows for some variation – at least up to a point. There weren’t any Motown songs in the movie Roeg made. Hathaway’s take on the Grand High Witch is different than Huston’s. The latter approached the role with a cold aloofness that gave way to outright horror when the mask came off. Hathaway, on the other hand, goes into full scenery-chewing mode, transforming the chief villain into a cartoonish shrew.

Like far too many unnecessary remakes, The Witches doesn’t do enough to justify its existence. It’s a retread designed primarily for those with a resistance to watching anything that doesn’t qualify as “new.” As such the film will work for its mostly young, intended audience (if they aren’t traumatized by some of the nastier elements). But it’s a bit of a disappointment that it offers little more than warmed-over leftovers – a forgettable, pre-fabricated movie in the Goosebumps tradition.

Witches, The (United States/Mexico, 2020)

Run Time: 1:46
U.S. Release Date: 2020-10-22
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Disturbing Images)
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1