The live-action family film has not had a great few years, it must be said. Paul King’s excellent Paddington films were two of the few bright sparks during a time when the genre was beset with rapping chipmunks and an endless supply of talking animals wearing sunglasses on the poster. Someone else who has not had a great few years – at least artistically – is Robert Zemeckis. The director had rebounded with the minor critical success of Flight before falling back into the world of films driven by bleeding-edge technology which struggled to connect emotionally with audiences. The less said about the weepy, ill-advised, emotionally stunted male fantasy Welcome To Marwen, the better.
When we consider some of his best efforts, Zemeckis would seem a great fit to adapt the work of Roald Dahl. Dahl, of course, is a children’s author whose books revel in their slightly twisted sensibilities while some of Zemeckis’ most beloved films are family-centric affairs not afraid to cover adult material with a playfulness (Dahl might have appreciated Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or the Back To The Future series). The director, however, has not made a non-animated kids film in decades and anyone hoping he would roll back the years with his version of The Witches will be sorely disappointed. His take on the famous tale is a stale reimagining that lacks the charm of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory or the sardonic bite of Nicolas Roeg’s vicious 1990 version.
Things start off well enough. We’re in Alabama, late 1960’s. Our lead, an unnamed young boy is placed under the care of his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) following the untimely death of his parents in a car accident. These early scenes are probably the strongest. Spencer commits to the silly, sweet nature of the mystical nanna out to protect her orphaned grandson from a malevolent coven. The gracious grandma’s determination to the boy’s safekeeping has a genuine, affecting quality that much of the rest of The Witches lacks. Jahzir Kadeem Bruno is also undeniably likable as our prepubescent protagonist.
Everything goes a bit south from when our eponymous enchantresses show up. The boy and his granny escape to a lush hotel in an attempt to flee their clutches but in a cruel twist of fate, it’s the very building where our witches are having their own convention of conniving. Like Spencer, Anne Hathway commits, perhaps too much, as the Grand High Witch. Her accent wavers from ‘Allo ‘Allo! Gestapo to the not so dulcet tones of the Swedish chef from the Muppets. Whatever it is she is going for, she is certainly going for something.
It’s a performance that grates as much as it mildly entertains. There are other witches, technically, but most of them might as well be the wallpaper for all the verbal input they are allowed. Orla O’Rourke plays Irish conjurer Saoirse who gets as many lines as her character’s name has syllables – and she’s one of the more heavily featured ones.
The most glaring issue comes as a result of the lacklustre computer generated imagery. A surprising flaw, given that even the most forgettable of Zemeckis outings can usually boast a high level of technical prowess in this department (the ‘uncanny valley’ human faces of The Polar Express notwithstanding). The mice, cats and various other virtual creatures would be more at home in a movie tie-in game on a mid-2000s console than any contemporary blockbuster.
The devilish, sharp grins of the Witches are probably an homage to Quentin Blake’s iconic illustrations but are unnerving due to their haphazard nature rather than any successful integration with Hathaway’s face. Perhaps Zemickis’ animators would not have had such a tough time were it not for the intensely bright, cosy cinematography which does not mesh with the attempted tone. The near pellucidity of the shots here only magnify the shortcomings of the special effects.
Ardent fans of the novel will note some of the alterations to the original story. Truth be told, most of these changes are welcome. Setting the story in the deep south and centring it around a young black character opens a range of narrative possibilities that unfortunately are never realised. Of course, a movie made mostly for children does not have to confront the depressing racial politics of the era but it’s an odd choice to set it at such a time and place without it having much impact on the proceedings.
One thing the Dahl devoted – is that a thing in 2020? – might appreciate is that Zemickis kept the original ending from the 1983 book. This is something the Roeg version eschewed and yet the 1990 one still feels more faithful thanks to a darker wit and grotesque conceptualizations of the witches’ true form. The worst crime of The Witches is that it is forgettable. The film will linger in the memory like the autoplaying pratfall video on your news feed you already scrolled passed.