Review: ‘The Witches’ 2020 (Roald Dahl revival)

Too scary for children, too silly for adults, but adequate for Halloween.

Our story begins in the late 1960s over how our narrator (Chris Rock) went to live with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer) in rural Alabama when he was just a boy (Jahzir Bruno). Our hero runs afoul of a child-hating witch (Josette Simon) who vanishes after hearing his Grandma calling out to him. Hesitant to confess what he witnessed, Grandma coaxes it out of him and admits to knowing of their existence… and a sudden realization both them may be targets. Fleeing to a seaside resort for safety, fate would have it that the Grand High Witch herself (Anne Hathaway) is holding a conference of covens at that very location… with a diabolical plan to turn every child in the world into mice: Formula 86.

Director Robert Zemeckis takes on Roald Dahl’s 1983 dark fantasy, relocating the British story to post-Civil Rights Act Alabama. The reworked Southern blend adds a new dimension to the former European flavor while updating the 1990 film version’s practical effects into a CGI-friendly production. Just in time for Halloween, those who remember the original film at all also recall how unusually creepy it was for kid’s movie. Now with Anne Hathaway finally getting to sink her teeth into an irredeemable villain, how does this Americanized interpretation mouse up against the near-forgotten original?

Hathaway has looked ready to wallow in an over-the-top villain role (read: ones not usually offered to leading ladies and love interests), and her recent choices of smarter quirkier characters hint she’s been itching for this. Her Grand High Witch knocks it out of the park — enhanced with a combination of effects making her otherworldly and wonderfully watchable at the same time — all without imitating Angelica Huston’s 1990 performance. It’s too bad the rest of the production never rises to meet Anne’s energy in her too-few scenes, coasting on casting that fails to push the envelope further than good enough. While the focus is intended to be the plight of our hero mice, the energy seems to flee the production every instance Hathaway is absent.

Special effects in the 1990 version were limited to mystical lighting and magical poofs, relying on mechanical puppetry to work actual enchantment. While imperfect, the computer-generated mice and specifically Hades the Cat are quite good, as are other creatures later in the film. Reliable Octavia Spencer turns in her usual matronly mentor performance, most often against non-existent critters to be added later; her presence does speak to the time period, suffering side-eyed looks countered with genuine assertiveness when required. The best hero moments are actually strewn throughout the credits, a inspired denouement than the perfunctory tale actually earns.

It’s hard to say if making the mundane moments scarier or reigning Hathaway in would have served to improve the final cut. There are plenty of incidental moments of dark humor — like overhearing an exasperated sous-chef order a sharpened knife so he can kill himself — but there are over-stuffed moments similar to Dolittle that add little more than empty visuals. If it isn’t asking too much, how about an original prequel featuring the Grand High Witch, one showcasing some earlier defeat that inspired her final plan?

The Witches is rated PG for scary images/moments, language, thematic elements, and overlooking an obvious split-pea soup gag.

Three skull recommendation out of four.

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