Film Review – The Witches (2020)
The Witches (2020)
As a kid, the family movies that left a strong impression on me were the ones that toed the line between being safe and outright terrifying. They weren’t straight horror films, but they didn’t shy away from presenting darker themes for younger audiences. Return to Oz (1985), The NeverEnding Story (1984), Watership Down (1978), and The Secret of Nimh (1982) are just a few examples where filmmakers did not coddle kids. The stories treated them as people that can understand the difference between right and wrong and between fantasy and reality.
Of course, there’s a limit to everything. The People Under the Stairs (1991) may have starred a kid but it was definitely not for children. There has to be a balance, and Roald Dahl understood that. For as popular as his books have been, Dahl always had a level of menace permeating underneath his fantastical worlds. Guillermo del Toro understands this as well, maybe even to a higher extreme. I can understand del Toro’s involvement with this latest adaptation of The Witches (2020) – he shares a screenwriting credit with Kenya Barris and director Robert Zemeckis. But the best of intentions does not always translate to success.
The plot follows the basic outline of the book but with some big changes. Instead of taking place in Europe, we are transported to 1968 Alabama. The narrator (Chris Rock) makes a definitive statement at the start: “Witches are real!” From there, we follow him as a young kid named “Hero Boy” (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno). We learn that Hero Boy lost both of his parents in a tragic accident and is now being raised by his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). Her tall tales stir his imagination, especially the ones about witches. Hero Boy soon discovers that witches do in fact exist, and in an attempt to stay clear of them the two take refuge at a swanky luxury hotel. Unlucky for them, also checking in are a group of witches lead by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). The witches are there to come up with a scheme to rid the world of children which – needless to say – does not bode well for our protagonist.
Robert Zemeckis loves being on the cutting edge of cinematic technology, with varying results. Here, his technical wizardry helps amplify some of the scarier scenes. It’s a commendable risk to not shy away from the grotesque look of the witches – it’s obvious Zemeckis and his team are trying burn some of this imagery into our heads. The narrative goes to great lengths to depict their look, with their deformed feet, bald heads and claw-like hands. This is particularly true for Hathaway’s Grand High Witch, whose Glasgow smile will surely leave some awake at night. In the most effective scene – where the witches gather in a ballroom to reveal themselves – the makeup and CGI effects operate exceptionally well.
The focus on the visual tricks leaves much to be desired in terms of world building. Resetting the story so that the main characters are black and living in the deep south in the 1960s will surely bring up thoughts of race and discrimination. However, those themes are so lightly touched upon that it’s almost an afterthought. The hotel itself, while beautifully decorated and lavishly shot, clearly resembles a plantation estate. These elements should have been explored further but were not. The narrative becomes heavily plot driven, brushing off Hero Boy’s character development in favor of his mission to take down the witches. After the scene in the ballroom, the film becomes exponentially worse, transitioning from a real-world aesthetic to one almost completely fabricated. At a certain point, the use of CGI was so artificial that I thought I was transported back to The Polar Express (2004) or Beowulf (2007).
Let’s talk about Anne Hathaway for second. Her performance is bold, to say the least. I don’t think I’ve seen an actor take such a ham-fisted approach to a villain in a long time. She chews up scenery every moment she’s on screen; from her over the top wardrobe, to her thick accent and her dramatic physical gestures. She’s Cruella de Vil on steroids – it’s as though she came from a completely different movie. It does take a bit of courage to go so big, but sometimes less is more. I’m sure Hathaway had a blast playing the role, but her performance hogs the spotlight from everyone else. All of the other actors are turning right when she’s turning left. Granted, she is entertaining to watch, but it’s only because she’s stealing our attention instead of earning it.
The Witches has a fast pace energy and is willing to dive into more thematically treacherous waters. But it buckles under a poorly defined world, a cartoonish villain, and a mind-numbingly stupid ending. It would probably be more beneficial to check out director Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation instead. I’m not always against remakes, reboots, or re-imaginings, but this is not a good example of one.