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  • Martin Cheney

The Witches (2020)


★★★



Robert Zemeckis' 2020 adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's classic, The Witches, is a frustrating film. In trying to find its own voice (and necessarily distract audiences from Nicholas Roeg's beloved and arguably superior 1990 version), it tries to be about three different kinds of movie but doesn't really excel at any of them. In the first instance, many viewers (including fans of Dahl's novel) will likely be pleased that it commits to a slightly darker conclusion than its predecessor, but ultimately the journey it takes to get there suffers by trying to please too many fanbases. The Witches (2020) is by no means a bad film, but the frustration comes from realising that it could have been wonderful.


Comparisons to the original film are inevitable, but Zemeckis does everything in his power to make you forget about it, and mostly succeeds. The starkest change is that the story is now set in late-1960s Alabama, where Charlie (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) goes to live with his grandmother Agatha (Octavia Spencer) after his parents tragically die in a car accident. After Charlie's frightening encounter with a genuinely creepy lady in a general store, Agatha teaches him about the existence of witches, how to recognise them, how much they hate children and how she came to learn about them first-hand. Realising that Charlie may have only just escaped with his life, they decide to check in to a fancy hotel just to be safe (managed by a criminally underused Stanley Tucci), only to find an entire coven of witches are staying at the same hotel under the guise of a conference for The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It is here that Charlie and Agatha learn of the Grand High Witch's (Anne Hathaway) nefarious plot to turn the children of the world into mice. And then, like, step on them.


I was in a state of absolute despair for the first third of this film. Some of the dialogue is woefully underdeveloped and its delivery is often stilted and lifeless. Young Bruno (the actor playing Charlie, not the comic-relief character called Bruno) does his level best but doesn't have the natural ease and charm to pull off what is a deceptively straightforward 'kid' part. Not even Spencer is immune to being dragged down by some of her lines, sometimes seeming like she only met her grandson minutes earlier. It's a real problem and had me sighing loudly and often, but fortunately (and inexplicably?) rights itself as the movie continues. Part of the reason is that the film seems to desperately want to be for kids, and so sometimes the characters do far too much narrating, just in case the audience is slow to catch on; Charlie in particular is especially bad at saying things out loud. "That scared the CRAP out of me!" That was abundantly clear when you jumped and appeared to be scared, Charlie - who are you talking to? The most egregious offence occurs, however, when he is hiding under a stage, LITERALLY UNDERNEATH the Grand High Witch, and says, "the Grand High Witch!"


Despite Zemeckis' best intentions, I couldn't in good conscience recommend this film for young children. It is scary. And not like, 'oh, bless, the original scared me when I was six years old, too' scary. Like, rated-M-for-a-reason, I wouldn't let children watch it, scary. There is some genuinely frightening and distressing imagery, and the abilities of the Grand High Witch are taken much further than the original, so if you think your little one would be traumatised by the 1990 Jim Henson practical effects, don't let them near this one for a little while.


On a related note, for the most part, Hathaway's antagonist is a success. There's a Moira Rose-esque comedic flair to her outrageous accent that makes her completely over-the-top performance quite endearing. She chews the scenery in every available second, but also manages to be effectively sinister in just the right moments. Anjelica Huston tragics (myself included) can put their pitchforks away. Her design is a little baffling, with feet that look like they're flipping you the bird, but overall, what could very well have been the biggest misfire in the film turns out to be one of the highlights.


The pièce de résistance of Roeg's original is the ballroom scene where we first discover the witches' true appearances and intentions - it's a thrilling scene to watch for the first time. Zemeckis fumbles the equivalent scene here with uneven pacing and too much of a desire to pay homage to the original. However, he absolutely soars in this film's climax - the scene involving poisoned soup and frenetic stomping. There's a confident and sure-footed playfulness that is desperately absent in the rest of the film, ably supported by Alan Silvestri's typically excellent scoring. This penultimate showdown partially redeems the film's other shortcomings and is a welcome relief. Everything about this scene is brilliant.


Slightly more discerning, mature viewers (which, I reiterate, should be the only people watching this movie), will notice that this film needs work. It's almost as if they accidentally used a previous draft of the script. There's even a handful of fleeting attempts to weave some heartfelt, gut-punch lessons about mortality and grief, but Zemeckis never has the confidence to lean in and explore them further, which results in some potentially deeply moving dialogue that almost becomes comical in its throwaway nature. The implausible is believed immediately, parents forget they have a child and characters say things that we already knew were true as if they're a plot twist. It's a disorienting quality that only adds to the feeling that you're watching an inferior version of something that could have been great.


The Witches is in cinemas now.


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