'The Witches': Film Review

THE WITCHES Anne Hathaway
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. /HBO Max

Anne Hathaway and cast in 'The Witches'

Bewitching enough.
10/22/2020

Anne Hathaway rules the coven and Octavia Spencer plays the doting Southerner defending her orphaned grandson from evil in Robert Zemeckis' update of the Roald Dahl children's classic.

The macabre humor of Roald Dahl survived even a sweetened ending that irked the famed British children’s author in Nicolas Roeg's delectable 1990 film of The Witches, thanks in large part to the glorious villainy of Anjelica Huston. Anne Hathaway fills the shoes of the Grand High Witch with her own flamboyant wickedness — and more elaborate CG tricks — in Robert Zemeckis' mostly captivating remake, which sticks closer to the source material even while shifting the story from 1980s England to late '60s Alabama.

The director rekindles some of the arch campiness that gave Death Becomes Her such afterlife adoration. But he's primarily in kids' adventure mode, working closer to the whimsical vein of some of his earlier hits than his erratic, more serious recent entries, which serves the story quite well. The energy level could be more consistent and the climactic action and ending less rushed, but there's sufficient charm and invention to make it work.

Originally intended for theatrical release through Warner Bros., the film drops Oct. 22 on HBO Max, where it should bewitch junior audiences and Hathaway fans especially.

The project initially was planned as a stop-motion animation feature for Guillermo del Toro, who retains a screenwriting credit with Zemeckis and Kenya Barris. (Del Toro also figures as a producer, alongside Alfonso Cuaron.) The handprint and flavorful dialogue of Barris are all over the reworking of the here-unnamed protagonist as an 8-year-old African American boy from Chicago (Jahzir Bruno), orphaned in a car accident and sent to live with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer) in small-town Alabama.

"A tough lady with a big heart" is how the grown-up hero (voiced in jolly, jaunty style by an unseen Chris Rock) describes her. Spencer has played variations on this folksy, nobody's-fool role countless times before, but the warmth and humor she brings to the film are an irresistible force. The early scenes in particular are lovely, where she coaxes her grandson out of his grief with cornbread, comfort and Motown hits.

The screenplay pulls off a clever transformation by finding folkloric parallels between the Norwegian grandmother from Dahl's novel and a Black woman in the Deep South. Her detailed knowledge of witches, numerology and other mystical arcana ties in with her community reputation as a healer, using herbs, potions and homespun remedies passed down over generations. If the softening of the racial divide in 1969 Alabama seems odd, well, this is a children's fantasy tale after all.

A grocery-store encounter with a strange woman wearing a snake as an accessory and offering him candy (Josette Simon) rattles the boy, prompting his Grandma to fill him in on the telltale signs of witches — they wear gloves to hide their claws and hats and wigs to disguise their bald heads, giving them chronic wig rash. And they find the smell of children repulsive.

Sensing the danger, Grandma calls in a favor from a cousin and whisks them off to the ritzy Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel on the Gulf of Mexico. She figures they'll be safe there because it's a resort for rich white folks and witches only prey on the poor and overlooked. She tells him of a childhood episode where her best friend accepted candy from a witch and was transformed into a hen, or "chickenified," as she puts it.

But their arrival coincides with a convention of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a typically mordant Dahl-esque cover-up for a large gathering of witches, presided over with withering hauteur by Hathaway's all-powerful queen bee. Swathed in fabulous fashions courtesy of costumer Joanna Johnston and speaking in a cartoonish Scandinavian accent, she makes her authority known as she strides into the lobby followed by her pack. She leaves hotel manager Mr. Stringer (an underused Stanley Tucci) stammering as he tries in vain to enforce the no-pets rule regarding her slinky black kitty.

The big set-piece, as it was in the Roeg film, is the ballroom gathering witnessed by the young hero, during which the Grand High Witch outlines her plan to have her minions open candy stores across the country, selling poisoned treats that will turn children into mice. The group's removal of their shoes, gloves and headwear reveals them in all their grotesquerie, with Hathaway vamping up a storm as she levitates, pirouettes and glides about the room, her face intermittently deformed by an outsize Joker smile with fangs.

Having demonstrated her rodent program on portly English kid Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), the Grand High Witch then sniffs out the hidden presence of the young hero, who gets a massive dose of her mouse-making potion and narrowly avoids being killed as he scuttles down a ventilation shaft pursued by her infinitely extendable arms. Together with the protagonist's pet mouse Daisy, who is also revealed to be a transformed child (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth), the three critters enlist Grandma in an attempt to reverse the spell and thwart the witches' evil plan.

With Spencer spending much of her screen time in the latter half interacting with three CG mice, the film slips into a more juvenile groove and the plotting becomes a bit more herky-jerky. But the hotel dining room chaos as they turn the tables on the witches is raucous fun, even if the subsequent showdown with the Grand High Witch is slightly underwhelming, especially after Hathaway has chomped on the scenery with such gusto.

Still, for young audiences encountering the story for the first time, The Witches should cast a spell, while older viewers will enjoy the contrasting comic approaches of Hathaway and Spencer doing what they do best. More of a taste of the other witches' personalities would have been welcome, but with such a lip-smacking diva turn to dominate the sorcery scenes, few will complain. Hathaway’s parade of outré outfits and hairstyles alone is a treat, and who doesn't want to see her pluck a wriggling worm out of her scabby pate and snack on it?

Zemeckis' signature style is much in evidence, from the dynamic camerawork of the director's longtime collaborator Don Burgess to the propulsive use of Alan Silvestri's big, old-fashioned orchestral score and the lavish detailing of Gary Freeman's period production design. And the extensive CG work — a far cry from the artisanal prosthetics and makeup overseen by Jim Henson in the Roeg film — is playful without taking over.

I would love to have seen what a boldly idiosyncratic fantasist like del Toro could have done with this story. But there's plenty here for audiences looking for family entertainment that balances darkness with a buoyant sense of mischief. At the very least, it's a lively step up from Zemeckis' last two films, Allied and Welcome to Marwen. 

Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures, Imagemovers, Necropia, Experanto Filmoj
Distributor: HBO Max
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Bruno, Codie-Lei Eastick, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Josette Simon, Orla O’Rourke, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro, based on the book by Roald Dahl
Producers: Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Luke Kelly
Executive producers: Jacqueline Levine, Marianne Jenkins, Michael Siegel, Gideon Simeloff, Cate Adams
Director of photography: Don Burgess

Production designer: Gary Freeman
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editor: Jeremiah O'Driscoll, Ryan Chan
Visual effects supervisor: Kevin Baillie
Casting: Victoria Burrows, Scot Boland, Nina Gold
Rated PG, 104 minutes