For a director with several well-regarded classics under his belt (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), Robert Zemeckis’ career has since spiraled down a negative trajectory. Recent offerings like Welcome to Marwen and Allied rank among the director’s weakest offerings, with these films showcasing Zemeckis’ creative bend without its usual dynamism or emotional heft. His latest release The Witches (which is opting for an HBO Max release due to COVID conditions), is similarly spiritless, noisily portraying its source material without much inspiration.
Based on Roald Dahl’s acclaimed novel, The Witches follows “Hero Kid” (Jahzir Bruno, with an older version played by Chris Rock), who moves in with his grandma (Octavia Spencer) after his parents’ deaths. After an encounter with a mysterious spectral force, the two travel to a luxurious hotel where an army of witches has assembled. Led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), these witches set their sights on turning every bratty kid into mice.
The seldom liveliness comes from the film’s assured cast. Anne Hathaway is clearly playing to the back of the auditorium, spewing theatrical energy that dominates the screen. As the Grand High Wizard, Hathaway has a blast playing into the character’s delightfully sinister persona, elevating what could have been a cloying presence in the wrong hands. Octavia Spencer is tailor-made for the sweet, yet stern maternal figure role, while Jahzir Bruno holds his own as the standard-issue protagonist (it’s also always a joy to see Stanley Tucci bring his signature wit).
Whether audiences are comparing this adaptation to Dahl’s novel or the 1990 film, this iteration of The Witches feels noticeably timid. Nicolas Roeg’s demented visual sensibility is substituted for a sterile blandness, with Zemeckis concocting busy CGI-driven sequences that lack a creative vision (transforming characters merely poof via purple clouds, a far cry from what the original dreamed up). Similar to other modern YA adaptations, this film would rather offer a forgettable diversion for adolescent audiences than actually challenging them, embracing dated conventions that mitigate Dahl’s inventive landscape. This is particularly disappointing coming from Zemeckis, who once shined for his ability to marry lively visuals within a well-constructed narrative (judging by his poor animated output, he seems to focus more now on filmmaking techniques than well-fleshed storytelling).
Zemeckis’ greatest sin derives from his avoidance of the material’s substantive qualities. Dahl’s novel ruminates on the vitriol of racist parties, using its 1960’s setting to educate young readers about the ignorance of prejudice. The script (written by Zemeckis and Kenya Barris, with an earlier credit from Guillermo del Toro), dances around this conceit while largely ignoring its significance, leaving audiences with a hollow shell of what Dahl was trying to create.
While crafted with visual busyness, The Witches rarely re-creates the timeless magic of its source material.
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