Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG, 106 minutes
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
There are at least two reasons audiences will tune into director Robert Zemeckis’ adaptation of author Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES: Either they’ve developed an affinity towards Nicolas Roeg’s iteration, or they’ve never seen it and are looking to experience it for the first time. Luckily, both roads meet at the conclusion that this remake is fine. The tweaks made to this refurbished, CG-enhanced version make it no better or worse than the beloved 1990 film. If anything, it stands to remind us that children’s bedtime stories, with all their faceted subtext and complexities, can feel somewhat comforting in times of upheaval and stress. It’s also Zemeckis’ most vibrant and best film in years.
In the clever wrap around device, narrator Chris Rock sets up the rules of the world, delivering a measure of fear and wonder as he tells a group of students that witches are real. They walk amongst humans, disguised as glam socialites, and they abhor children – so much so, they poison kids with candy hoping to rid the earth of their existence. He begins to tell of his life-changing encounter with witches back in 1969.
After the death of his parents in a tragic car accident, our 8-year old hero (Jahzir Bruno), who goes unnamed in the picture, is sent to live with his grandmom (Octavia Spencer), who’s also unnamed, in Demopolis, Alabama. It’s a small town and a big change for the young grieving kid used to living in Chicago. As his loving-but-disciplined grandma finally pulls him out of a deep state of sadness (in the film’s more touching sequences), a new dark specter looms. The boy encounters a witch while grocery shopping with his grandma, and the witch begins violently coughing in their presence. In order to keep her last living relative safe, grandma whisks the boy away to a ritzy hotel on the Gulf, managed by Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci). However, she’s unwittingly managed to bring him to the lion’s den as the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) and her coven converge for a conference to plan their mass extermination of children.
While the constant thematic and emotional through-lines speaking to bravery and ingenuity remain, the script from Zemeckis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro add and subtract a few elements from Allan Scott’s adaptation. They do away with the Miss Irvine character. It suffers from expository speech dumps. Since this retelling revolves around a Black family, the filmmakers flesh out social commentary that wealthy witches prey on poor and disenfranchised folk in the Black community. But once the boy and his grandma check into the resort populated by snooty white folks, the narrative strays from any real world connection to bigoted mindsets of the period. The coven want to turn all kids – regardless of social stature – into mice, making a shining example out of a young chubby guest the boy befriends, Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick). He eats a candy bar laced with their potent poison and transforms into a mouse, first violently seizing, then launching in the air in a puff of purple smoke to emerge from his pile of clothes as a talking mouse. Our hero gets caught rescuing Bruno and is also transformed. Sentiments espoused emphasize that his humanity remains whether he stays a mouse or goes back to being a child.
The filmmakers sustain a strong air of camp at all times. There’s a heightened stylization to the pop aesthetics in Don Burgess’ color-soaked cinematography, Gary Freeman’s production design and Joanna Johnston’s costume designs. Visuals and camera work recall the aesthetic whimsy and fantastical bombast found in PUSHING DAISIES and a few Barry Sonnenfeld films (like MEN IN BLACK and THE ADDAMS FAMILY). Though nothing in this refurbished model can hold a candle to what Jim Henson did with his practical puppetry in Roeg’s iteration, special FX work is appealing in a few sequences, like the rain hitting the window pane morphing into the ghoulish details grandma divulges to her young charge.
Hathaway, whose accent hovers between Norwegian and Eastern European, seems to be having the most fun vamping it up. She doesn’t try to ape the brilliant magnificence Anjelica Huston brought to the same role, but rather pays homage in her own ways, mixing the sleek glam with the sinister underbelly of her character’s motivations. Spencer also shines in the film’s more grounded moments, when she brings comfort to her sorrowful charge, or holds him spellbound recounting stories. She finds hidden, compelling facets and provides a nice comedic counterbalance to Hathaway’s ostentatious role.
Zemeckis’ THE WITCHES might have cast its spell a bit more successfully had they integrated their key new ideas in with the older ones with greater follow-through. Nevertheless, its magic is fairly bewitching.
Grade: 3.5 out of 5
THE WITCHES will debut exclusively on HBOMax on October 23.