This toothless snoozefest is a wasted opportunity to remake a Roald Dahl classic.
Do you count yourself as one of the lucky traumatised scamps who had a pant-soilingly good time watching Nic Roeg’s 1990 adaption of Roald Dahl’s The Witches? If so, please avoid going anywhere near Robert Zemeckis’ uninspired reimagining, which never bothers to justify its existence and, worst of all, never conjures anything close to the magic and scares of the original.
Zemeckis sets his version in ‘60s Alabama, where Octavia Spencer’s benevolent grandmother takes care of her recently orphaned and unnamed grandson (Jahzir Bruno). When they escape to a luxury hotel after a possible witch sighting, they’ll unwittingly find themselves in the midst of a coven gathering. Meeting under the name of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the crones are led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), who schemes to transform all the world’s children into mice.
Things start off promisingly, with a car crash shot that makes you think Guillermo del Toro’s involvement on scriptwriting duties will pay off in creepy spades. However, all hopes of a darkly fantastic adventure are dashed when the tone firmly settles for cosily heart-warming romp. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but this bizarrely inert film never gets to the core of what makes Roald Dahl books so macabrely memorable, even failing to convincingly inject a sliver of social commentary that appeared to be in-baked within the period and setting change.
Instead, this wasted opportunity of a remake is family-friendly to the point of condescension, mollycoddling the pint-sized viewers by brushing away the Grimmsian elements to the point of elevating Stuart Little to the rank of subversive masterpiece. The only joy to be found in the 2020 version is the fraction-of-a-second-possibility that the film may turn into a Ratatouille / Little Chef origin story at the halfway mark when the recently rodent-ized central protagonist scurries about a hotel kitchen trying to tamper with a soup recipe. Oh, the things that could have been…
As for Anne Hathaway, she pales to Anjelica Huston’s face-peeling turn, settling for a hammy portrayal complete with a pantomime villain accent that sounds like she’s distantly related to Inspector Clouseau. It’s a real shame, as the Glasgow smiles on the witches’ faces make the coven members initially unsettling. However, by the time the overabundant 2000s-era CGI kicks in (a mediocre replacement for the terrifying Jim Henson Studios physical effects of the original), you’ll be wondering which is a more pressing concern when it comes to the Prevention of Cruelty to Children: the witches’ plan to eradicate the smallies, or subjecting pint-sized viewers to this toothless snoozefest? Debatable.
The Witches / Directed by Robert Zemeckis (US 2020), with Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer, Anne Hathaway. Starts October 29.