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Review: 'The Witches' (2020) Dir. Robert Zemeckis

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson, Chris Rock


The second feature film adaptation of this children's classic from the mind of Roald Dahl retains a memorable story but updates the style and setting for a new generation of audiences...

When a car accident leaves a young boy (Bruno) orphaned, he is taken in by loving Grandma (Spencer) to start a new life in the summer of 1968. The two form a steady bond over time and he comes out of his shell with her help.

However, the young boy accidentally finds himself in the presence of a witch in his local store, and Grandma relays a dark tale about the danger of witches; to her horror they are very much alive and present in society.

Fleeing to a local hotel for safety, they two suddenly find themselves locking horns with the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) herself and her coven, staying at the hotel and out to rid the world of children with a plan that will certainly spell doom for all...

A very different adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl children's book, and also very different in comparison to the 1990 feature film starring Anjelica Houston and Rowan Atkinson. Straight away, this shifts setting from England to America and placed in 1968, introducing us to an African/American family torn apart by tragedy but unified by the bond of doting Grandma-cum-Voodoo Priestess Spencer and timid grandson Bruno.

After an introduction full of music, style and soul of the period, it doesn't take long for the danger of the witches to become present and we zip away to The Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel for safety amongst "rich white folks". Octavia Spencer is at her best as the Grandma we all want to have; full of love and comfort for her grandson, but able to stand firm in the face of adversity, fight for what she believes in and never back down from oppression.

Yet it's Anne Hathaway who is the most valuable player in this tale, rolling her rrrrs with thick Eastern European delight boasting ruby red lips, deep dark eyes and sporting a Chelsea smile to make Heath Ledger's Joker proud. She's the best stilettoed Bond villainess we've never had. And here, she stands comfortably beside Anjelica Houston for bringing a worthy Grand High Witch to life with class and creepiness to boot.

Kudos for Stanley Tucci who brings out a charming wig and deep Southern drawl for his turn as Mr Stringer, the hotel manager who is as perfect as Rowan Atkinson was for being a man proud of his hotel, his residents and out for the perfect stay and reputation keeping his cool at all times.

While Robert Zemeckis once captivated audiences with family friendly adventure and fantasy, his works have turned darker and more intense as the years progressed. An example of this turn of work can be seen in films such as 'The Polar Express', 'Welcome To Marwen' and 'Allied'. With 'The Witches', he dispenses with the sugar coated spooky tale that Nicolas Roeg envisioned for film in 1990, and instead brings a much more brooding, atmospheric darker and unsettling film (for younger audiences anyway) in it's place. The foundations of the Dahl novel are all there, thankfully, from the caricature characters of good and evil to the grotesque imagery of bald headed witches. Yet, for what this was on paper, on film the imagery is a little too extreme for younger audiences in comparison to what has come before.

The Chelsea smile parting into a hideously wide and fanged mouth, combined with the rotting flesh of bald heads, enormous nostrils, abnormal claws and stubbed feet will be the source of nightmares for many young viewers. Yet, the witches are still laced with a dark humour to them, it's just a shame there is a little too much of that unbalance of family friendly content and grown up chills; it's not sure how intense it wants to be for a 2020 audience.

When the scary scares come, they come in bold fashion and Hathaway sure does convey a scary Grand High Witch when she needs to. It's a typical creepy Zemeckis fantasy, flirting with light horror and comedy in a way that Tim Burton would be proud of.

CGI plays a big part of the film this time, often over-used for what could easily be practical sets or sequences. But when needed, it does the job well enough, especially when it comes to the Stuart Little actions of the animated mice, equally brought to life well by the likes of newcomers Bruno and Eastick, and veteran star Chenoweth. Chris Rock book ends the tale as narrator with his usual punchy style. The practical touches are stylish and evoke the period perfectly, from costumes down to the design of the hotel. This is all wrapped up by long-term Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri who lends his brand of adventurous, sometimes mischievous score to proceedings.

The heart-felt messages are here, but thin on the ground and there are times the whole narrative is just a paint by numbers adaptation with CGI taking over for comical and creative purposes.

'The Witches' is a very mixed offering; good in places, not so good in others, but on the whole lacking anything new or innovative to make it as memorable as the original adaptation or the book itself.

'The Witches' is a co-production between Warner Bros. Pictures, ImageMovers, Necropia Entertainment, Esperanto Filmoj and Double Dare You Productions

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