The Witches isn’t immune to some familiar children’s cinema pratfalls, but its hyperactive energy and Zemeckian set pieces keeps things mostly singing.
Robert Zemeckis’ 40-odd-year career can be split rather neatly into several phases, in which the look, subject matter, and technology of his films change drastically. Following his zippy comedies of the ‘80s, including the beloved Back to the Future trilogy, Zemeckis shifted into more prestigious, middlebrow fare starting with Forrest Gump and ending when his terrible experience making Cast Away pushed him away from traditional filmmaking and into the motion capture experiments that would define his early 21st Century output. The 2010s found him directing old school adult dramas like Allied and two adaptations of acclaimed documentaries. His new film, The Witches, adapted from the Roald Dahl book, is a departure once again, but rather than constituting yet another new beginning, it seems more like an amalgam of his earlier obsessions. It’s a CGI-heavy film for children — his first aimed at kids since A Christmas Carol — but with an added touch of Death Becomes Her’s silly sexuality, courtesy of Anne Hathaway’s unhinged performance. Though not everything works and some of the typical trappings of children’s movies threaten to overwhelm near the end, Zemeckis clearly still has the chops required for this sort of energetic fantasy film.
While this film adaptation swaps out the book’s European setting for mid-century Alabama and casts Black actors in lead roles, the basic bones are intact. A young, unnamed orphan (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) stumble upon a convention of children-hating witches at a hotel, and the boy is subsequently spelled into a mouse. If the change of setting and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris’ screenplay credit point towards a modern, relevant update to Dahl’s story, it exists only as signifier. This is not a “woke” take on Dahl that attempts to draw a parallel between witchcraft and racism, but rather something even more unfortunately rare: a big-budget children’s film starring Black characters where racism is not the primary existential threat.
No, the main problem in this child’s world is witches, and particularly Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch. It’s hard to say if what Hathaway is doing here is good, exactly. She sounds like she’s doing twelve different accents at once, leaning heavily on a terrible Russian inflection, and her physical performance relies on unrestrained gesturing. It’s a performance best described as busy, and, in the throes of her witchiness, as her voice drops several octaves, she often becomes completely unintelligible. But combine that with her digitally altered face and magnificent outfits, including a solid gold metal brassiere and snake-lined robe, and what emerges is nothing less than enthralling. Her first major scene is also the first set piece of the film and it’s easy high point: upon revealing her plot to turn all the world’s children into mice, she and her coven commence that plan at the main character’s expense, before chasing his newfound rodent form into a vent. It’s a robust and exciting sequence that, at moments, is about as upsetting as kids films get — Jahzir Bruno being held down and force-fed a serum recalls the Jacob Tremblay torture scene in last year’s Doctor Sleep, if on a tamer scale.
From there, The Witches alternates between suspenseful action set pieces starring CGI mice and scenes of Octavia Spencer talking to the mice. The former are much more successful as they play to Zemeckis’ strengths in set-up and pay-off — mouse traps laid throughout the hotel in the middle of the film don’t go off until they’re spectacularly repurposed in the finale. Even within single scenes, stakes are quickly established, as a mouse is given a simple mission with obstacles mounting around him. There’s a remarkable clarity and sense of purpose in these scenes that is too rare in children’s entertainment, especially in works as silly and hyperactive as this. But whenever there’s a break in the action or when Anne Hathaway isn’t on screen, The Witches can get pretty dull. Octavia Spencer tries her best, and she really can deliver ridiculous exposition with the best of them, but nothing can save her from acting opposite three CGI mice brought to life with bad voice performances. Still, there’s nothing here bad enough, not even Chris Rock’s atrocious narration, to weigh down the lightweight playfulness that The Witches manifests when at its best.
You can currently view Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches on HBO Max.