I remember seeing Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches” on VHS at the sleepover birthday party of a trio of triplets who lived down the road from me. I was 9 at the time. For those of us who weren’t enticed away by the boys’ Sega Game Gear, the picture made quite an impression. Numerous kids bailed on the movie for other reasons – leaving the room crying, upset and terrified. (One of these cats had a similar incident caused by the Rodent of Unusual Size while watching “The Princess Bride.” Perhaps I should’ve hung with a heartier crowd?)
“The Witches” is PG, but it’s an intense PG. There’s imagery therein we weren’t accustomed to seeing. (Go figure – the dude behind “Performance,” “Don’t Look Now” and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” made a kid’s flick that rattled?) I stuck with the “The Witches.” It didn’t freak me out … it intrigued me. I dug the puppets created by Jim Henson (who executive produced) and his team. I was enraptured by Anjelica Huston’s creepy performance.
Fast forward 30 years and now we’ve got Robert Zemeckis’ spin on “The Witches,” currently available for streaming on HBO Max. Zemeckis made some seminal flicks of my and every other ‘80s kids’ youth in the “Back to the Future” trilogy and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” He’s lost a step or twelve since then getting sucked down a motion capture-fueled technological wormhole. (See “The Polar Express,” “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol” … or better yet, don’t. Tom Hanks’ dead CG eyes will haunt your nightmares.) Sadly, “The Witches” isn’t a return to form – and strangely it’s technology that often hobbles the flick. (A horrendously rendered CG cat that would make your Nintendo 64 blush from embarrassment is my least favorite element of this enterprise. These technicians seriously fuck up fur texture and then add insult to injury by making the cat wet and brutally botch the water effects.)
“The Witches” tells the tale of Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno), a young lad who loses his folks in a car accident. He goes to live with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer – easily the best part of this movie and almost anything she appears in. Also, how in the hell is she playing anybody’s grandmother?!!! She was born in 1972! Get with it, Hollywood! Keep employing Spencer, but maybe try slotting her as the lead of a romantic comedy or something?). The boy is shy, sad and reserved at first. Grandma breaks down his walls with her big heart and by dancing to a coupla choice mid-to-late ‘60s and early ‘70s soul needle drops (foremost among them is the Four Tops’ “Reach Out I’ll Be There”).
Just as things start going well for the duo, a coven of witches rear their ugly heads nearby. Grandma, Hero Boy and his pet mouse Daisy (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth) flee to a beachside resort hotel managed by Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci) to hide. As luck would have it, the witches (fronted by Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch) are staying there too and have nefarious intentions of turning the world’s children into mice via potion-dosed chocolate bars since kids stink to high hell to them otherwise.
A murderers’ row of talent assembled to make “The Witches.” Zemeckis directed. He co-wrote with Kenya Barris (“Black-ish,” “Girls Trip”) and Guillermo goddamned del Toro! It was produced by del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón. I wonder what this movie would’ve played like had del Toro directed it? As is, it kinda reads like Great Value brand Tim Burton. I would love to see the Burton of yore tackle this material.
In spite of all the talent behind and in front of the camera, “The Witches” is a mixed bag. The acting for the most part is only so-so aside from Spencer. Bruno’s a cute kid, but not an especially adept actor. His performance improves once a transformation takes place and he’s providing voiceover only. Hathaway goes BIG and is admittedly entertaining at times. The first iteration of her character kinda reminded me of my high school/college sweetheart. She didn’t have Heath Ledger Joker mouth as Hathaway’s Grand High Witch does, but their faces kinda resemble one another and the poofy blonde wig sealed it. Hathaway’s performance and wigs getter bigger as the movie proceeds. She employs an accent that sounds like a mixture of Melania Trump and Swedish Chef from “The Muppets.” I often had trouble understanding her, which I’m sure is played for humor – mostly it just frustrated me. Tucci is almost entirely wasted. How does a movie waste a talent such as Tucci?!!! I’m assuming he’s here primarily as a favor to Hathaway after having worked with her on “The Devil Wears Prada.”
This complaint was likely lodged against the 1990 version too, but I’m uncertain who this version of “The Witches” was made for – it’s too scary for children and too childish for adults. It often plays like one of those “Stuart Little” movies from the late ‘90s/early aughts and mostly seems like an excuse to make fat jokes at the expense of children and mice alike.