Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Movie Review: "The Witches" (2020)

Movie poster for the HBO Max original film "The Witches," starring Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, and Stanley Tucci
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Movie"The Witches"
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Year: 2020
Rating: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Roald Dahl was a writer who made numerous fantastical children's tales with a slightly darker edge. He produced classic stories such as Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryJames and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. FoxThe BFG, and the book on which this film is based, his 1983 novel The Witches. The story was adapted once before by director Nicolas Roeg in 1990, and that incarnation featured Jim Henson's creepy practical visual effects. That version of the story was not beloved when it was released, but it has amassed a cult following over the decades. 30 years have passed since the release of that film, and since Hollywood struggles to do anything original, it was almost inevitable that we would see a remake come to life. This time around, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis puts his spin on Roald Dahl's The Witches (2020)...and he does so by injecting it with his love for baby-boomer nostalgia. Seriously, should we be surprised at this point? After all, what's a Robert Zemeckis film without a couple of feel-good golden oldies on the soundtrack? Zemeckis combines elements from both the book and the 1990 movie but has relocated the setting from Norway and England to 1968 Chicago and Alabama in the good old US-of-A because apparently, Americans can only relate to Americans. Joining Zemeckis as co-writers are Kenya Barris (of Black-ish and Girls Trip fame) and Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro.

Octavia Spencer and Jahzir Bruno star in the movie Roald Dahl's The Witches
Octavia Spencer and Jahzir Bruno star in the movie Roald Dahl's The Witches (Image provided by Warner Bros.)

We were excited about the prospect of a remake of The Witches (2020), especially considering the cast and crew involved here. We love Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci, and we've enjoyed Anne Hathaway's work more often than not. Guillermo del Toro is one of our favorite writers/directors. If you need someone to incorporate horror-centered elements into your script, del Toro is the guy for you. I have always enjoyed Black-ish, and Girls Trip was a hilarious surprise. Robert Zemeckis has always been on the cusp of cinematic innovation, and he has been singlehandedly responsible for some of the most iconic films of all time (the Back to the Future franchise, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). We figured this trio would combine their expertise and bring something fresh and spooky to the world of Roald Dahl's The Witches. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

The Witches (2020) centers on an unnamed orphan boy (Jahzir Bruno) and his Grandma (Octavia Spencer), who takes him in after his parents are killed. One of the differences right off the bat is that this version attempts to explore the grief the boy experiences when he loses his parents, though this is done in the most shallow way possible. Seriously, it's eye-rollingly saccharine. It may have been better to take the earlier approach of not addressing the grief stage at all. As we mentioned, the film now takes place in the post-Jim Crow South. Given this immense change in location and era, we figured Zemeckis and co. would use it as an opportunity to address the racial inequality of the Civil Rights-era South. After all, del Toro and Barris are not strangers to confronting racism head-on in their other works. Unfortunately, that's not the case. The Witches (2020) offers what amounts to a highly idealized version of late 60s-early 70s Alabama. The closest it comes to addressing this is the staff at the plantation-style hotel where the boy and Grandma visit, which is comprised almost entirely of people of color, while the majority of the guests are white. The bellboys are shocked to see Grandma and the boy show up as hotel guests, and nary a word of it is spoken after that. We shouldn't be surprised, considering Zemeckis has sort of built his career on altering history to make it "happier." It felt like a massively missed opportunity. The disconnect is too glaring to ignore, and it speaks to the greater issue at hand: the script doesn't know what it wants to be. It wants to be a reimagining, but about 85% of it is identical to previous versions of the story, and the changes that are made only add confusion and contrivances. Some elements of the narrative are left unexplained or only exist because they are needed as plot devices. One example is Grandma's mystery cough. In the 1990 version of the film, her cough is the reason she and her grandson go to the hotel in the first place, so she can take in the sea air to calm it. Another example is the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) having one toe on each foot. The defining characteristic of a witch is that they have no toes, and the only reason the Grand High Witch has them in this version comes back around later in the story unnecessarily. And speaking of Grandma and the Grand High Witch, most of the acting falls between "good" and "passable." Anne Hathaway's wacky Slavic-esque accent is all over the place. Her version of the Grand High Witch is over-the-top, to say the least. Though it might all be intentional, it was hard to focus on the film once she showed up because she was so hammy. Octavia Spencer does a good job but doesn't have much to work with.

Robert Zemeckis has always been a director who uses exciting, new technology to help tell his stories. We had hoped Zemeckis might combine the latest CGI technology with practical effects for optimum creepiness, and as a nod to the original film, which used puppets and special effects from Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Wrong again. While there are some practical effects used here, Zemeckis leans heavily on the usage of CGI for most of the film, including the animals, the transformation scenes, and even for the arms, faces, and fingers of the witches. More often than not, the visual effects wind up looking cartoonish and painfully unrealistic.

Anne Hathaway stars as the Grand High Witch in "The Witches" (2020)
Anne Hathaway stars as the Grand High Witch in The Witches (2020) (Image provided by Warner Bros.)
The Witches (2020) is not intolerable, but it's a glossy, more mellowed-out, more Hollywood version of Roald Dahl's story, which we're sure is wickeder than this incarnation. It wants to be a film everyone can identify with, but the script lacks the conviction to dive into the hard-hitting issue of racial inequality despite being set in the not-so-far-off-1960s. It wants to be a dark fantasy adventure, but its heavy reliance on CGI makes it look overly goofy and not at all frightening. It does the bare minimum to keep kids engaged, and we think parents will be bored out of their gourds watching it. As hard as she tries, Anne Hathaway is not Anjelica Huston, a key component of why the original film was as successful as it was. We think it'd be best to stick with the version from 1990, which is more relatable and still holds up today.

My Rating: 4/10
BigJ's Rating: 4/10
IMDB's Rating: ~5.4/10
RT Rating: ~49%
Do we recommend this movie: No.

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