The Witches - Robert Zemeckis - HBO Max
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
by Noel Oakshot Featured Film Retrospective

The Witches — Robert Zemeckis

September 7, 2022

Like the best fiction for young children, the secret to Roald Dahl’s bibliography is its sensory qualities, that it can unlock new pathways in the neuroplastic mind of the young, drawing them into worlds of deeply felt adventure. Consider this passage from George’s Marvellous Medicine:

“Soon the marvellous mixture began to froth and foam. A rich blue smoke, the colour of peacocks, rose from the surface of the liquid, and a fiery fearsome smell filled the kitchen. It made Goerge choke and splutter. It was a smell unlike any he had smelled before. It was a brutal and bewitching smell, spicy and staggering, fierce and frenzied, full of wizardry and magic. Whenever he got a whiff of it up his nose, firecrackers went off in his skull and electric prickles ran  along the backs of his legs.”

It is this kind of viscerally imagistic writing that ignites imagination of children and retains relevance across the generations — see also Dr. Seuss. And it’s this quality — of tone, of feeling, of sensibilities — that we find something pivotal in adapting such material to the screen. The greatest strength of Nicolas Roeg’s soul-rending version of The Witches — likely the best regarded Dahl adaptation of the last 40 years, though Dahl himself was famously a critic — is in this arena, rendering itself in the mode of old European fable and myth, soaked in wintery reverent awe and striving beyond its means to invoke cosmic mystery, a tale on the threshold of a world of colossal unknowns and infinite potentials to explore. This is why the film so infamously branded itself upon the nightmares of a generation — it isn’t just the horror of the picture itself, but the gravitas with which it is made to be felt.

Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches takes Dahl’s archetypal story and transplants it largely unaltered into 1960s Alabama with help from Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, and Anne Hathaway, whose villainous turn as the high witch is a chaotic highlight. While the violence and horror of the source material are largely smoothed over with humor, hijinks, and generic live-action kids movie aesthetics, Zemeckis makes the one bold decision in this otherwise risk-averse affair in opting to retain Dahl’s original ending, a shocking revelation that is completely incongruent with the tone set in the rest of the film. Even Roeg’s otherwise far darker adaptation was not so game. This newer film is precisely the kind of frenetic live-action cinema for children that one is accustomed to seeing this century. However, perhaps the most notable thing about The Witches is its abject failure to make an impact. A meeting of two once towering cultural behemoths in Dahl and Zemeckis, it’s hard to imagine the film achieving anything short of near-ubiquity were it produced in the 2000s, and yet, it flopped profoundly hard in the direct-to-streaming marketplace, to the point where this past month The Witches was deleted from the Warner Bros streaming ecosystem with 5 other underperforming features to write off their losses for tax purposes. Even the odd commercial failures among the last few decades of big-budget Dahl adaptations like Steven Spielberg’s The BFG and Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach have at least left something of an imprint in our collective memory. But though The Witches is only two years old, it already carries the awkward energy of a poorly aged relic from another cultural era. In part, this likely reflects the diminishing statures of the two men in question. Over the last decade, the bedrock beneath Dahl has been quietly eroding, and The Witches in particular is precariously perched given the mainstreaming of academic feminist critique. And post-Cast Away, Zemeckis has struggled to regain the mainstream cachet he was afforded after a string of unassailable popular classics. But as to why The Witches itself failed, the story is a little more complicated than it may at first seem.

When perusing responses to this film, one struggles to find robust common threads. Many critique the writing, which hews reasonably close to the source material, and while it is far from revelatory, it’s hardly abysmal either. Others hone in on the arbitrary change of setting and the performances; again this seems petty. At worst, some of the secondary performances meet the low bar of perfunctory competence, and while not everyone will enjoy it, Hathaway’s performance is undeniably good fun. Clearly many hate the film, yet are struggling to diagnose what exactly they dislike about it. The issue here is that, in many ways, this film is what our critical consensus has been asking for. Conversations about the abundance of remakes today aside, The Witches checks a lot of boxes: a mid-budget Hollywood film with classic source material adapted lovingly, a multiracial cast allowed to go on adventures without unnecessary & performative invocations of the evils of racism, an insane performance from an iconic actor (definitely a box people want checked; see the Nicolas Cage cult), style ranging from prestige drama to kid-flick mayhem, and a bevy of creative action set pieces. In so many ways the film is actually a capitulation to mainstream critical sentiment that on paper should have notched a 90% on Rotten Tomatoes and be the second or so most beloved children’s film of 2020 to come out of Hollywood. But in truth, these critics, and indeed many in the public, do not know what their own preferences are, having been misled by a bizarre consensus in which acting, writing, action set pieces, and a handful of other, lesser categories are viewed as standardized linear metrics through the combination of which a cumulative assessment is formed. Self-evidently, this is not how one naturally engages with a film as a viewer, does not reflect how a film makes one feel, and asking for films to be crafted in accordance with these standards is asking for box-checking assembly line productions like the ones that have come to dominate the cinema over the past decade and a half, which of course people are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with.

Part of the appeal of films like Danny Devito’s Matilda and Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches was that they were so consciously striving to invoke worlds of magic and adventure that were beyond the capabilities of the respective productions to truly pictorialize, much like the writing on which they are based. When Matilda was produced in the 1990s, the then century-old constraints on the possibilities of visual effects were still very much in place, but over the next five years the massive digital convergence of the new millennium would obliterate those limitations and generally upend everything. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a perfect encapsulation of this seismic shift. Where preceding Dahl adaptations had at best the invocation of unrealized possibilities, in Charlie, Burton puts one foot through that door… and immediately breaks his ankle. Mileage varies widely for this cornerstone garbage bin classic: yes it’s somewhat striking a new aesthetic timbre, but it unfortunately happens to be a very bad and repulsive one — which is by no means inevitable for such experiments, and is in this case perhaps a peculiarity of Burton’s sensibilities. Films like Charlie have permanently changed the calculus around worlds in high-expense film, both in the possibilities arising in its wake and in the backlash it prompted for its promethean ugliness. In this light, when making The Witches, Zemeckis, et al. had a clear dilemma to contend with. They could push ahead attempting to go beyond the pitfalls that felled their predecessors in adapting Dahl in the modern era, and strike deeper into the veins of feeling present in the material than was even possible before, making a new revelatory cinema that could truly activate the most wonderful imaginings in the minds of young viewers, or they could deliberately pull back, adopting restrictive limitations in order to construct an empty imitation of the cinematic form past that was shaped by its struggle against those same limitations. Tragically, they opted for the latter. This is why Zemeckis’ The Witches is such a hollow shell of a film; not because the preteen protagonist who is turned into a mouse needed more character development, but because the locus shaping the film is its deliberate unwillingness to imagine.

On some level, one might hope for more from Zemeckis here. After all, he has a very strong track record of embracing new filmic technologies, going back to the audacious and technically astounding live action/animation composites of Who Framed Roger Rabbit to his trilogy of animated productions in the 2000s which credibly give him claim to be a parallel pioneer of the digital upheaval alongside more frequently cited figures like George Lucas. And The Witches is something of a return to this trajectory of innovation, in which he revisits the groundbreaking methods he pioneered in Roger Rabbit but with CGI instead of hand-drawn animation. But in a revealing moment in an interview that Zemeckis and his effects supervisor Kevin Baillie did with Unreal Engine, the director describes how during production he would constantly have to reign in his effects team, preventing them from realizing their most ambitious ideas because they were outside the language of an optical camera. And this is emblematic of the fundamental problem: from a distance it may seem like Zemeckis is an ally in reinvigorating cinema with the possibilities before us, but in reality his embrace of digital reflects only his recognition that digital is more efficient than celluloid at doing celluloid filmmaking, an obvious fact that only seems somewhat progressive because so many are willfully ignorant of its truth. Beyond that, his commitment is entirely to replicating filmmakers and filmmaking past. As the past decades’ discontents have shown, this is a dead end.

Part of Robert Zemeckis: Movie Magician