In the second half of director Robert Zemeckis’s new adaptation of Roald Dahl classic The Witches, the villainous Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) has requested that she and her fellow members of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children be served pea soup, without garlic. The result, a waiter tells Octavia Spencer’s kindly grandmother, is “very bland, practically inedible”. Without a crucial blast of flavour, the meal is lifeless and lacking in any memorable qualities.
Apropos of nothing, then, this new take on the Dahl work transplants the action from the English seaside to 1960s Alabama. Our unnamed child protagonist (Jahzir Bruno) has been left in the care of his grandmother after his parents died in a car accident. When he has an encounter with a strange woman in a grocery store, his grandmother informs him that witches are a very real, very dangerous threat and that they should flee to a swanky hotel where she has connections.
The hotel is full of “rich white folks”, says Spencer, and “witches only prey on the poor and the overlooked”, so they’ll be safe. That’s about as far as the social commentary goes, despite the potentially potent Alabama setting and the very specific time period, in the thick of the civil rights movement. It’s just one of many missed opportunities in a movie that sees Zemeckis sand off the rough, prickly edges that made Dahl’s book – and its beloved 1990 movie adaptation from Nic Roeg – so memorable and enduring as a childhood nightmare.
It doesn’t help that this is a pretty ugly movie. Anyone who has seen Zemeckis’s blockbuster work in recent years, from The Polar Express to Welcome to Marwen via the sort of not-quite-real-life of Allied, will be familiar with the entirely lifeless CGI he so often deploys. The practical effects of Roeg’s movie – shepherded by the genius of Jim Henson – remain notorious for their edge and fear factor. It’s difficult to see that happening with this version, which is too bathed in pixels to replicate the chills of grotesque crones and kiddies transformed into rodents.
But there is a sense of fun to the performances, with Spencer shining as “a tough lady with a big heart” who doesn’t take crap from anyone – human or witch. Anne Hathaway was always going to struggle to match Anjelica Huston’s unforgettable evil, but she certainly leans in to her preposterous Eastern European accent, hissing malice and commitment to delivering all of her dialogue while floating about in mid-air. Some of the design choices are a little baffling, with all of the witches boasting very obvious, Joker-esque facial scarring even in their disguised form. This becomes a gaping, toothy maw when there’s violence on the menu, but the CGI looks cheap and distracts from the tension.
In some ways, it’s difficult to pinpoint why The Witches falls so flat. The storytelling is largely faithful to the Dahl book and the performers are all having the times of their lives. But Zemeckis’s computerised sheen robs the story of any real danger and, despite the presence of monster maestro Guillermo del Toro as co-writer, there’s nothing here to chill the blood of unsuspecting kids. Even the existentially horrifying portrait story from the original movie has been given a more family-friendly twist.
It’s this consistent blunting of the story’s claws that prevents the movie from delivering on the potential of its personnel and premise. Dahl’s work is set for a string of upcoming adaptations, from Taika Waititi’s Netflix take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to a big-screen version of the Matilda musical, and so let’s hope that lessons are learned from The Witches. If you’re going to take on Dahl, you have to be prepared to get dark. It certainly takes more than bland, garlic-free pea soup.
Dir: Robert Zemeckis
Scr: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Codie-Lei Eastick, Kristin Chenoweth
Prd: Robert Zemeckis, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, Luke Kelly, Jack Rapke
DOP: Don Burgess
Music: Alan Silvestri
Run time: 106 minutes
The Witches is available on premium video-on-demand platforms in the UK now.