The Witches (2020)

ROBERT ZEMECKIS

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB

USA//, 2020. , , , , , , . Screenplay by , , , based on the book by . Cinematography by . Produced by , Guillermo Del Toro, , , Robert Zemeckis. Music by . Production Design by . Costume Design by . Film Editing by , .

Thirty years after Nicolas Roeg’s perfectly pitched (if also, in its conclusion, slightly compromised) adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children book, the property is brought back to the big screen with modern visual effects, a relocation to the United States and a lot of octane pumped into what was previously a much gentler plot (though it should be said it sticks to Roeg’s book more than it veers from it).  After the tragic loss of both his parents, which director Robert Zemeckis, in his inability to understand Dahl’s brittle presentation of life’s harshest realities, presents like he’s remaking the ending of Forrest Gump, goes to live in another town with his affectionate grandmother (Octavia Spencer).  After he notices a mysterious lady lurking about their town and tells his grandmother about it, she tells him all she knows about witches and their hatred of children, and when the two of them realize that evildoers are targeting them specifically, Grandma packs their bags and takes them far away to a fancy hotel where her cousin works.  Poor luck that these two happen to check in at the same time as a children’s charity group does, a bevy of philanthropic women who turn out to actually be witches in disguise, meeting there for their annual conference under the leadership of the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). Poking his nose where it doesn’t belong gets Bruno and his new friend turned into mice, which means that the two of them (along with his actual pet mouse as third friend) must now hide in Spencer’s purse as they try to beat the bad ladies at their own game. Hathaway has stored up endless vials of potion that she plans to have her minions distribute around the world to turn every child into a rodent, and our heroes must figure out a way to give these ladies a taste of their own medicine. A bouncy visual look and some fun and exciting sequences make up for the fact that this one is missing both the whimsy and menace that Roeg brought to the story thirty years ago.  Hathaway tries to inject as much glee into her villainy as the superior Anjelica Huston did the first time around, but she’s hampered by a script that rarely allows her to do more than preen around like she’s preparing to burst into a musical number, plus is undermined by her appearance constantly being augmented with obvious visual effects; Hathaway is fabulous but never scary, only gross thanks to the poor choice of giving her a creepy Glaswegian smile that might ruin some viewers’ dinner (the younger ones in particular). It manages to keep Dahl’s theme intact, that life can be lived well despite the fact that there is evil out there that will never go away, but Zemeckis keeps changing the pace on his direction and goes from the sensitive opening to an action-packed middle and concludes with capricious comedy, and it feels like you haven’t been watching the same movie throughout (the fact that he has someone of the caliber of Stanley Tucci in the cast and clearly does not know what to make of him is as good an example of this film’s failings as any).

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