The Witches review: Darkly entertaining family horror
James R | On 28, Oct 2020
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Bruno, Code-Lei Eastick
Roald Dahl is having something of a moment. More than a decade since Wes Anderson boldly reimagined Fantastic Mr Fox for the big screen, and four years after Steven Spielberg’s The BFG, the beloved children’s author is about to see his work get the cinematic universe treatment, with a host of Netflix projects in the worlds, including two from Taika Waititi. It’s interesting, then, that when Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches was announced, the outcry from fans had little to do with the novel, and more to do with Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation, starring Angelica Huston.
Zemeckis’ take on the book, which sticks closely to the text, does manage to forge its own form of success – not because the Polar Express director is trying to live up to Roeg, but because he understands what’s behind Dahl’s timeless appeal: his deceptively dark streak, which makes his books almost seem more suitable for adults than children. (This has a PG certificate, but that’s presuming your kids don’t freak out easily.)
And so we join Charlie (a charismatic Jahzir Bruno), an orphan raised by his grandma (Octavia Spencer) and whisked away to a seaside hotel when she suspects a witch is in the area. Unfortunately, that same hotel is also where a coven of witches are descending to plan the mass eradication of children in the area – all under the guise of a gala for a charity dedicated preventing cruelty to children. Their secret weapon? A powerful potion that will turn them to mice within 30 minutes – or even faster, given the right dosage.
Within 30 minutes, Charlie himself has been turned into a little squeaker, and that decision to let our hero be caught remains shocking, even when you know it’s coming. Charlie is accompanied by Bruno (Code-Lei Eastick), another unfortunate child victim) and, joined by Charlie’s pet mouse, they set about trying to put things right.
No spooky kids’ tale would be complete without a memorable villain, and Zemeckis’ film benefits hugely from Anne Hathaway, who is having the time of her life as the Grand High Witch – who she plays with an accent that’s part-Scottish, part-German and all manner of fun. Given a CGI-ed jaw that opens disturbingly wide, she doesn’t hesitate to use it to chew the scenery, while remaining genuinely unsettling. She’s not as understated and chilling as Huston, but she doesn’t have to be – this is a cartoonishly grotesque tale and she’s in tune with that groove from the off.
But the Grand High Witch and Charlie’s spellbinding showdown never gets topped by the rest of the film, as it scurries into hyperactive mode – leaving little time for tension and excitement. It doesn’t help that the script, by Kenya Barris, Zemeckis and Guillermo del Toro, leaves portly sidekick Bruno as a lazy one-joke character – and that cheesy narration from Chris Rock, which tries to frame the downbeat conclusion is a more positive light, repeatedly undermines any the visual spectacle Zemeckis has assembled. Octavia Spencer, though, is the movie’s saving grace, bringing a wit and heart to every second she’s on screen.
The result is an uneven but entertaining family horror film, one that isn’t afraid to conjure up nightmarish moments but never quite gets its potion recipe right. Amid it all, Stanley Tucci is under-used as a hotel manager trying to keep a handle on the chaos. You reach the end credits knowing how he feels.