The Witches (2020) Review
VISUALLY FUN, BUT DERIVATE
AND SLIGHTLY UNIMPRESSIVE
In children’s literature, Roald Dahl has certainly made a name for himself. Born from immigrant parents in Wales and serving in the Royal Air Force during WWII, Dahl went on to become a prominent writer in the 40s with noteworthy works in the field of children’s literary works as well as in adults; becoming a best-selling author over time and being called “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century”. While his short stories are known for their unexpected endings (i.e. Tales of the Unexpected), Dahl’s children’s books have become more famously known for their unsentimental, macabre¸ and otherwise darkly comically mood that features villainous adult antagonist of the child characters as well as championing the kindhearted individual and underlying warm sentimentality. Such famous novels by Dahl include James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, Matilda, The Witches, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. Additionally, Dahl has received numerous literature awards, including World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement in 1983 and the British Book Awards’ Children’s Author of the Year in 1990. While he did pass (sadly) away in 1990 at the age of 74, Dahl’s works continues to appreciate and fascinating with readers across the globe as well as an interest from Tinseltown; finding various film studios tapping into Dahl’s narratives to produce feature films that spiritual capture the imaginative and macabre tones of what made his novels intriguing. Now, Warner Bros. Studios (and HBO Max) and director Robert Zemeckis present the latest cinematic representations of Roald Dahl’s work in the film The Witches. Does this movie “enchant” its viewers or is it a mediocre endeavor that’s inferior to its original 1990 film counterpart?
Losing both of his parents in a car accident in 1968, Charlie (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) moves in with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer) in Alabama, starting a new life with her. As the pair connect and warm to each other, evil is lurking, with Charlie coming into contact with one briefly, offering the young boy with some candy, but surviving the ordeal after the witch flees. Taking action, Charlie’s grandmother moves themselves to a remote hotel in Louisiana for safekeeping, hoping to use her healing powers to get a handle of their sticky situation; sharing with him her own personal experience of her first encounter of witches long ago. At the same time, The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), the leader of all the witches, enters the hotel establishment, who’s presiding over a weekend event with other witches, making a devious plan to destroy the children of the world by using a special potion hidden in sweets to turn them all into mice. Charlie, with mouse pal Daisy (Kristen Chenoweth), learns of the scheme, soon turned into a mouse himself by The Grand High Witch. Scurrying for safety with Daisy, along with fellow child victim, Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), Charlie returns to Grandma, with the foursome setting out to stop the witch convention and put a stop to The Grand High Witch’s evil plan.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
Working at a bookstore for many years, I have seeing (and shelved) plenty of YA books and have (on occasion) read a few of them myself. Roald Dahl’s book are such a prime example. As I’ve stated in several previous reviews, I wasn’t so much of a fan of reading during my childhood as I was more interested in movies (as you can imagine). However, since most of Dahl’s book are (to me) “easy reading”, I’ve actually read a few of them these past several years, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG, and The Witches. Naturally, the compelling / imaginative stories that Dahl has written has certainly garnished the attention from Hollywood with several adaptations being made from them. Personally, I liked Willie Wonka and the Charlie Factory (the 1971 version) and James and the Giant Peach. However, I did like the visual appeal of 2016’s The BFG. To me, this movie (as well as the books themselves) have a certain child-like imagination that’s mixed with a sense of darker / macabre undertones.
This brings me back to talking about The Witches, a 2020 feature film and the second adaptation of Dahl’s book of the same name. As mentioned, I’ve seeing plenty of Dahl’s works (whether in book form or in the film form), so its quite easy to see why “the appeal” for his works seems to be intriguing and alluring. Naturally, the 1990 version of The Witches was such a case; displaying the right amount uniqueness and child-ish wonder / macabre undertones that Dahl’s books are known for. It wasn’t a tremendous feature, but certainly gained a cult following, despite Dahl himself not particularly liking the project. To be quite honest, I was a little bit surprised when I heard that a new iteration of Dahl’s The Witches was being developed. Even more…. I really didn’t hear much about its production as the project sort of came out of nowhere for me, with a few vague announcements being made here and there. My first official attention towards the project was back when the movie launched its official movie trailer (via online), with the film being set to be released on October 22nd, 2020 via HBO Max (it was pulled from its theatrical of October 16th, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and I was somewhat impressed by the film’s preview. It looked interesting and definitely a great visual appeal. Plus, I did like the cast (i.e. Hathaway, Spencer, and Tucci). So, I was definitely intrigued to see this movie, but (due to my work schedule) I waited a little bit to sit down and watch The Witches on HBO Max. Well, I finally did it….and what did I think of it? Well, it was okay. Despite a delightful tale with solid visual cues and some fun performance, The Witches lacks padding to its narrative and seems a bit “meh” on the whole. Its not a complete letdown, but it seems a bit inferior to the 1990 version.
The Witches is directed by Robert Zemeckis, whose previous directorial works includes such recognizable films like the Back to the Future trilogy as well as Forrest Gump and Contact. Given his wide appeal to various subject matters to approach for cinematic storytelling, Zemeckis seems like a suitable choice to tackle such a project. In this regard, the movie does shine, with Zemeckis’s seasoned directorial experience at the helm and guiding the feature in a that’s approachable to fans of the source material as well as newcomers to Dahl’s tale. Of course, as mentioned above, Dahl’s novels usually have an underlining dark / macabre tone throughout and Zemeckis seems to keep that notion in mind while shaping the film. Yes, much like the 1990 version, Zemeckis makes The Witches have some of its darker / evil moments that, while not something truly terrifying, does its job and doesn’t rob of what probably Dahl wanted to convey. Thus, The Witches works effectively as a sort of “gateway” horror film for kids (i.e. still lighthearted and fun, but dark moments) in a way that’s similar to the 2018 film adaptation of The House with a Clock in its Walls. So, as a warning to some parents out there, some images might be a little bit too scary for youngsters out there (just as a cautionary warning).
On the whole, Zemeckis sticks very much true to Dahl’s novel; capturing the tale of a young boy and his grandmother’s adventure of dealing / surviving in a hotel with a group of witches. Maybe a little bit too close (more on that below), but, for the most part, I think it was good in remaining faithful to the source material. So, despite some things that the movie gets wrong, I think fans of Dahl’s book will like that much, especially keeping the original ending (something that the 1990 version changed, which (again) drew ire from Dahl himself. Of course, the one big change that the movie undergoes is in its setting, with Zemeckis making the movie set during 1968 in Alabama rather than in England. Some might cry fowl for this decision, but its one that’s purely cosmetic and doesn’t really change the narrative of The Witches in anyway shape or form. Of course, Zemeckis does a good job in embracing the various changing of locales in the new iteration of Dahl’s story; making The Witches enjoyable in visual entertainment variety.
In the presentation category, The Witches is a striking visual appeal and is definitely a positive in the movie’s likeability. Again, while the idea of changing the story’s setting from England to Alabama make upset a few people, the background setting (scene layouts) is definitely great in the movie by having a quality level of attention of detail (circa late 60s / early 70s) aesthetics and nuances throughout. Thus, a lot of the credit for the film’s background “look and feel” for The Witches has to belong to several of the “behind the scenes” members such as Claire Fleming and Tom Still (art direction), Gary Freeman (production design), Raffaella Giovannetti (set decorations), and Joanna Johnston (costume designs). Another great appeal in this film is in the updated visuals. A lot of 1990 version visual appeal was in the display of hideous looks of the various witches in the movie, which mostly done by the usage of prosthetists, that gives off a very creepy / disgusting book (something befitting Dahl’s written work). The 2020 version of The Witches updates these visual cues with the help of some CGI effects and certainly gives a little more terrifying / menacing look on how The Grand High Witch and her cohort of witches actually look like, including three-fingered hands, inhuman feet, and horrifying elongated facial smile that’s reminiscent of Attack on Titan (if you know what I mean). Thus, these visual cues as well as few displays of magical powers that the various witches possess definitely bolster the movie. Lastly, the film’s score, which was done by Alan Silvestri, compliments the movie, which present some good melodic melodies throughout. As a side-note, there are few parts of the movie that feature iconic songs of the time, which definitely helps build upon the new setting as well.
Despite its admirable attempts, this 2020 version of The Witches does fall short in a few areas that make the film a little bit underwhelming. How so? Well, for the most part, the movie’s screenplay, which was penned by Zemeckis as well as Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro, pretty much sticks to what Dahl’s original story and, while that might be good for purists’ fans out there, this creates a problem in translating the narrative from “page to screen” concept. As many readers of Dahl’s novels know, Dahl’s stories are generally short with enough narrative to tell to keep a child entertained and usually (when adapting into a feature film) usually adds additionally content to pad out the story…. regardless if its subplot scenes and / or character development. Unfortunately, despite the talent in managing the film’s screenplay, The Witches’s script is rather bland and thin; translating into a film project that, while faithful, seems underdeveloped. That’s the biggest problem that the movie can’t overcome. Nothing really seems that quite developed and kind of runs out steam by the feature’s halfway point, with a resolution, while sound in its conclusion, struggles to land a satisfying impact. I kind of was expecting a larger “final confrontation”, but what’s presented seems underwhelming and left me with wanting more. To be honest, I was expecting more from the story. More time with the Charlie and his grandmother (in the second half of the movie), more time with the Grand High Witch and his witch cohort, more one or two little adventures of Charlie and his friends throughout the hotel as mice. The entire film definitely is need of padding the story out, which makes the film feels rather bland and thinly sketched.
In addition to this particular problem, the first half of the feature seems rather boring. Yes, I do understand that the movie (both in direction and in script managing) to build the feature’s world and storytelling elements, but it takes a while to actually get to the point with a whole lot of expositional dumps; hampering the film down with several pacing issues during this portion. Plus, the movie just seems a bit derivate throughout; making The Witches an updated take on Dahl’s book, but lacking the creative energy or the innovation of its predecessor. Basically, its like a new coat of paint on The Witches and that’s all…. kind of like the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
The cast in The Witches is pretty good with several recognizable talents involved in this project to help bolster the film within its characters. Perhaps who has the most memorable role in the entire movie would definitely be actress Ann Hathaway who plays the role of the Grand High Witch. Known for her roles in The Princess Diaries, Rachel Getting Married, and The Dark Knight Rises, Hathaway has certainly become more and more known throughout her career as an actress; capturing large supporting roles in notable feature films as well as landing the occasional lead roles. Granted, this particular role doesn’t require for the talented actress to “dig deep”, so it doesn’t push Hathaway to cultivate a powerful theatrical performance, but it does make for a large and bold character-esque performance of which Hathaway does nail. Sure enough…. Hathaway embraces and commitments the campiness of the larger-than-life role of the Grand High Witch, including a thick accent in her performance. Again, its nothing new or original, but it is quite entertaining and definitely leaves a last impression while watching the movie; making Hathaway’s Grand High Witch the most amusing in the film.
Behind her, actress Octavia Spencer brings her quality style of acting to the feature with her role of the Grandma (Charlie’s grandmother). Known for her roles in The Help, Hidden Figures, and The Shack, Spencer has always been a solid actress and giving a lot of steadfast performances throughout the years; carving out a slice theatrical poise / gravitas every time she’s on-screen. Case in point with her involvement in The Witches, with Spencer giving a even-keel performance that plays to the talented actress’s strengths and making a convincing portrayal of Charlie’s grandmother. While actor Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada and The Lovely Bones) is a prominent actor (more in the supporting roles category), he gets a bit more sidelined in this movie. True, he does a solid job in his role as the hotel manager named Mr. Stringer. Additionally, actress Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daises and Strange Magic) does a good job in voicing the role of Mary / Daisy, a young girl that was transformed into a mouse a long time ago. Lastly, actor Chris Rock (Everybody Hates Chris and Lethal Weapon 4) does a good job in doing the narrative voiceover work as the older version of Charlie.
The child actors in the movie are (perhaps) the more mediocre variety compared to their adult co-stars. Granted, none of them are terrible and / or give bad performances, but they just don’t come into their respective roles as nicely and never leave a lasting impression. Such is the case with young actors Jahzir Bruno (The Oath and Atlanta) and Codie-Lei Eastick (Holmes & Watson), who play the roles of Charlie (the film’s main protagonist character) and Bruno Jenkins, another young boy who gets caught up with Charlie in the film’s events. Together, both Bruno and Eastick give what they can in their respective roles, but feel a little bit underwhelming, with Eastick being more of a “comical gag”.
The rest of the cast, including actress Josette Simon (Red Lights and Wonder Woman) as the witch Zelda, actress Eugenia Caruso (The Alienist: The Angel of Darkness and Youth) as a witch named Consuella, actress Orla O’Rourke (Calvary and The Clinic) as a witch named Saoirse, actress Ana-Maria Maskell (The Interceptor and A Wonderful Christmas Time) as a witch named Esmeralda, actor Philippe Spall (Downton Abbey and Allied) as the chef, actor Simon Manyonda (His Dark Materials and King Lear) as the sous-chef, and actor Charles Edwards (The Crown and Mansfield Park) and actress Morgana Robinson (The Windsors and House of Fools) as Bruno’s father and mother, are, more or less, designated in smaller supporting roles. While these particular roles are quite limited in the movie (one or two scenes here and there), most of them are acted well, so no complaints.
Charlie and his grandmother soon come into contact with a group of witches and must unravel a sinister plot to save the children around the world in the movie The Witches. Director Robert Zemeckis’s latest film takes a glance back at Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s novel and translates the classic tale into a film that delights within its visual appeal and acts as a movie that kids (those looking to get into scary / horror flicks) will find to their liking. While the movie does follow very close to Dahl’s literary source material and certainly does take advantage of updated visuals as well as some solid performances (mostly Hathaway and Spencer), the film does struggle to entice viewers; resulting in a feature that seems middling in a generic formula that finds difficulty in mounting something innovative. Personally, I thought that this movie was okay. It was terrible as it did have some redeeming qualities that I like, but I felt it was a bit inferior to the 1990 original film of which I still prefer of the two cinematic adaptations. So, my recommendations for the film is both an “iffy choice” as well as a “rent it” as some might like it, while others think of it as a “meh” project. In the end, while Dahl’s children’s novels will continue to be read across the globe by various generations and will continue to see a variety of more new / updated film presentations of them, The Witches represents has a cautionary tale of sorts; displaying that fun and impressive visuals can’t overcome narrative substances.
3.2 Out of 5 (Iffy-Choice / Rent It)
Released On: October 22nd, 2020
Reviewed On: November 20th, 2020
The Witches is 106 minutes and is rated PG for scary images / moments, language, and thematic elements