Director Robert Zemeckis has always had a reputation as a bit of a gonzo tech wonk. Between more staid films like Allied and The Walk, Zemeckis’ obsession with pushing technology to its limit, as in his 1988 masterpiece Who Framed Roger Rabbit, has resulted in oddities like Beowulf, The Polar Express, and Welcome to Marwen. These films are full of strange, not necessarily successful, but certainly memorable choices. That makes it all the more disappointing that his latest movie, a new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel The Witches, is almost boring.
In a change from the original book, which takes place in England, Zemeckis’ adaptation, which he co-wrote with Black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, is set in 1960s Alabama. Young Charlie (Jazhir Bruno) goes to live with his grandmother Agatha (Octavia Spencer) after his parents die in a car accident. When Charlie encounters a witch (Josette Simon), Agatha panics and whisks them away to a fancy hotel — only to discover that the hotel is hosting an entire conference of witches. Even the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) is in attendance, with a brand new plot to wipe all children out of existence by turning them into mice.
Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation of Dahl’s work made the story terrifying through incredible practical effects, with Anjelica Huston’s version of the Grand High Witch peeling her skin off her own head. For a few blissfully terrifying scenes, Zemeckis’ version achieves a similar level of ghoulishness. The digital transformations in the new film take advantage of the eerie uncanny-valley effect that re-creating a human in CGI can have. (It’s the same effect that made The Polar Express unsettling, rather than comforting.) When people transform between human and animal shapes, the intermediary stages are truly frightening. The witches, when unleashed, are terrifying, too, with Joker-esque smiles full of sharp teeth, and arms that stretch endlessly towards their prey in a manner that suggests the bones inside are breaking and re-growing.
But those spine-tingling moments don’t come often enough, and the other traits used to identify witches feel insensitive at best. The things that set the witches apart — baldness, missing fingers and toes — are all physical traits that exist in real life, and Dahl’s text stigmatizes them, using them to mark his characters as inhuman.
On top of that, the changes the writers made to Dahl’s story, while initially promising, seem to have been forgotten by the time the film ends. The choice to make the main characters Black starts out as a big deal, as the hotel staff are openly stunned to see Agatha — right up until she proves she has money. The change, emphasized by the fact that these witches tend to prey on children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds under the assumption that they won’t be missed, makes it appear as though there’s some social commentary on the filmmakers’ minds. But the threads are abandoned immediately after being introduced.
Spencer is the least inert part of the movie. She conveys such tenderness in a few key scenes that she seems to open a window into an alternate dimension where Zemeckis’ ambition and the screenwriters’ proven skill actually lived up to their reputations, and coalesced into a more emotionally engaging story. Instead of a solid center, the movie has Hathaway’s performance, which is so big it could be seen from outer space. As the Grand High Witch, she puts on a vaguely Eastern European accent and plays everything to the rafters, ramping up the campiness present in her Ocean’s 8 and Serenity turns. The good and bad thing about the choice is that it’s so strong, it takes over from the film’s thoughtful but abandoned narrative updates in giving this version a reason to exist.
Bruno’s performance is largely lost in Hathaway’s shadow, especially after Charlie is turned into a mouse, and Bruno’s expressiveness has to be translated through a CGI rodent face. The animation isn’t bad — Zemeckis mostly resists the temptation to anthropomorphize his mice — but it’s difficult to make mice move in a live-action film in a way that doesn’t look bizarre in a bad way. And Chris Rock’s narration as Charlie’s adult self is so Chris Rock-y that it’s jarring — Rock’s bombastic energy doesn’t fit with anything else in Zemeckis’ movie.
Ultimately, the mishmash of elements doesn’t cohere into a truly memorable movie. No one part — not Hathaway’s performance, not the handful of truly scary scenes — rises above the rest to distinguish Zemeckis’ Dahl adaptation as a rival to Roeg’s. If anything, this version could have benefited from being weirder. Given that weird is territory Zemeckis seems to specialize in, The Witches’ relatively tame nature is a letdown.
Roald Dahl’s The Witches is now streaming on HBO Max.