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Reimagining of ‘The Witches’ brings a forgettable charm

Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic is a visual refurbishment that leaves audiences missing the more traumatizing 1990 original

Film journalists and movie buffs alike buzzed with anticipation when news arrived announcing that Robert Zemeckis, director of “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” was slated to adapt the 1983 classic story, Roald Dahl’s “The Witches. 

No doubt all those excited to watch the upcoming film recalled its three-decade-old predecessor, a source of childhood trauma for many. One particular scene forever etched in a child’s mind may be that of the Grand High Witch, played masterfully by Anjelica Huston, removing her disguise to reveal a warty, deformed countenance. 

The practical effects in Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 film remain pure nightmare fuel, as the transmogrification of children into mice and a witch into her true demonic form take place amidst a haze of green vapors and convincing prosthetics. While Zemeckis’ special-effects witchcraft brings a distinct touch to the 2020 adaptation and Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch boasts of some terrifying features of her own — excluding the design of her hands, which proved to be of hurtfully bad taste to the disability community due to a resemblance to ectrodactyly — there is something lacking in the deluge of CGI, an absence that prompted audiences to wax nostalgic for a more repulsive and appalling cinematic experience less reliant on the green screen. 

Zemeckis’ version of the tale is not entirely insipid and unfeeling, though. Following a script co-written by Zemeckis, Kenya Harris and Guillermo del Toro, the story is re-situated from England and Norway to the American South of the 1960s. A young unnamed boy (Jahzir Bruno) is the sole survivor of a car accident that kills his parents on a snowy night. He moves to the Alabama town of Demopolis with his homely grandmother (Octavia Spencer) who gradually draws him away from his sorrow and back into healthy play with a pet mouse and lively living-room dances. 

Yet just as his life regains a semblance of normalcy, the boy has his first encounter with a candy-proffering witch in the general store. Realizing that he is in dire danger, the grandmother decides that they must move to a beachside resort and find anonymity among wealthy patrons and their doted-upon children, as witches tend to target children if they are poor and neglected. However, the grandmother’s well-meaning plan actually leads her grandson to a direct confrontation with a coven of witches, who are arriving at the hotel for their annual meeting. 

This first third of the film brings heartwarming charm and building suspense. The boy’s grief is relatable, and Spencer shines as the caring, charismatic grandmother. Though the narration by Chris Rock as the elderly version of the boy may be over-the-top, the duo reigns in the campiness with nuanced performances. The grandmother’s recollection of her own encounters with witches is equal parts horror and comedy, and Zemeckis captivates with flashy visuals of rain dashed against window panes on a stormy night. 

But the rest of the film isn’t as well-constructed, and eventually diminishes in substance. The Grand High Witch and her coven strut in, and Hathaway has fun rolling her ‘r’s in a vaguely European accent. The film’s hit-or-miss comedic moments are pervasive — viewers end up wondering if Rock and Hathaway and apparently the rest of the cast are attuned to a sense of camp that the boy and his grandmother are left out of.

Tension dissolves after the children are transformed into mice, and there is nothing else to do but move the plot swiftly along. The boy’s transformation not only makes him a mouse with expressive brows, but also elevates him to a role as a suddenly much more outspoken and quick-witted protagonist. His pet mouse turns out to have been an orphan girl miserably tricked by a witch. In contrast to the grandmother’s memories, there is a disappointing lack of visual depiction of what actually happened to this girl. 

The children-mice then carry out their plan to stop the witches from executing their large-scale “mousification” of all children without a hiccup, culminating in an underwhelming climax. The only noteworthy, crowd-pleasing moment may be the well-written side-plot of the Grand High Witch’s cat, Hades.

Overall, the film currently sits at 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, an accurate evaluation of what it has to offer. It has its darkly hilarious bits, and the special effects on the witches succeed in making the audience grimace. Bruno and Spencer also offer a refreshing delight as the main characters. But the film’s identity remains muddled, as it struggles to shock and alarm the audience with its portrayal of the demonic ladies while remaining family-friendly. 

In the end, the movie functions peremptorily. This 2020 attempt at the Roald Dahl story isn’t bad. But compared to the 1990 original that scarred moviegoers, it’s just not memorable. 



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