It might be unfair to compare the new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches to the version that was released in 1990. After all, this new film isn’t a remake of that one as it is a new adaptation of the same source material. It only appears to be a remake thanks to a public consciousness that remembers the 1990 film far more than the book it’s based on. That being said, I’m going to compare the two anyway, because this new version is so relatively disappointing on so many levels. Also, this is my column. So there.
In this version we still have a Grandma (Octavia Spencer) and a Boy (Jazhir Bruno) who end up discovering a coven of witches meeting at a fancy hotel. We still have a Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) with a plan to turn all of the world’s children into mice. We still have the Boy getting turned into a mouse and having to stop the witches’ plan with his Grandma. However, instead of being set in present day England and Grandma and Boy being Norwegian/English, we’re in 1968 Alabama, and Grandma and Boy are African-American.
That last fact does hint that the film will be exploring the book’s themes in new ways based on the cultural and societal conditions of the setting. Several beats in the first act highly suggest this will be a focus, such as Grandma saying the witches target poor, black kids because they’re less likely to be missed by society at large and Grandma and Boy hiding out in a fancy white people’s hotel because nobody would think to look for them there. But this gets dropped fairly quickly once the witches themselves show up and is never brought up again.
That’s a shame because the film has little narrative momentum on its own. It seems to be content to simply exist and lazy-river its way to a finale that feels as artificial as it does illogical. It’s just one disappointment in a film that’s practically fueled by lowered expectations and missed opportunities.
Fair or not, this film lives completely and totally in the shadow to the 1990 adaptation if only because almost every aspect of it was done better the first time. That isn’t to say that things are necessarily bad, but very little rises above the level of competent. There’s no fire, no artistry. Except for the lead actors, nearly everybody involved from director Robert Zemeckis to composer Alan Silvestri should be slow-clapped for dutifully fulfilling their assignments. Yes, even Stanley Tucci, adorable as he is as the hotel manager. I mean, I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed.
The original film had a tactility to it that helped to make it genuinely terrifying. The Grand High Witch’s true form was a grotesque but very practical Jim Henson creation that was like a child’s introduction to body horror. Director Nicholas Roeg gave his film a colorful grit that made it disconcertingly real. This new film is in comparison a candy-colored, high-contrast, rounded-corners fantasy awash in extremely dated CGI. It isn’t even slightly creepy, let alone frightening. Muting the most macabre elements of the film blunts the impact of the story and makes everything seem far less dangerous.
And let’s talk about that CGI for a minute. Apparently, in the 20 years since Stuart Little was released, our CGI mice technology has not improved a single bit. For a director obsessed with pushing what effects can do like Zemeckis, the shoddiness and lack of polish to the effects is sort of baffling. I don’t want to outright accuse the man of not caring about his own projects, but that really is the vibe I’m getting here. It makes the film seem much more mercenary that it probably was ever intended to be and forcing us to ask why even make a new adaptation if you aren’t going to put your heart into it? Even the admittedly entertaining climax eventually loses its power by being dragged out too long.
So, are there any legitimately good points about the film? Yes, actually. Let’s start with the Grand High Witch herself. Anne Hathaway has perhaps the most difficult job of all here, competing with Anjelica Huston’s iconic performance in the original. It’s appropriate that the GHW in this version has a huge mouth full of fangs because Hathaway devours every bit of scenery she can get her hands on. She practically swallows it whole. And it’s glorious. She’s clearly having the time of her life, even if she can’t keep her accent straight (the GHW apparently comes from a city that borders Norway, Romania, Germany, and Greece). She’s never not fun to watch, however, and she knows when to lean in to the GHW’s menace and power. The only times the film comes even close to being as intense as the original are due to Hathaway’s performance.
Octavia Spencer very much holds her own, however. In fact, Grandma is a more active and engaging character than her Boy ever is, thanks both to Jahzir Bruno’s flat performance and to Spencer’s inherent charm. Grandma, like many of Spencer’s characters, is equal parts strength, vulnerability, and humor, a combination Spencer could pull off in her sleep though she’s never asleep at the wheel here. Her confrontations with Hathaway are some of the few truly spellbinding moments of an otherwise mundane film.
Roald Dahl reportedly hated the 1990 adaptation of his work for the changes that were made to the source material. This film aimed to be much closer to the book, but it seems like that energy would have been better spent just making an entertaining film instead of a loyal one. Whereas the 1990 film was a perfect blend of whimsy and grotesquerie that terrified as much as it entertained, this new film is all family-approved gloss and post-production sheen that never rises about the level of product. It’s a hex in a Hallmark card when what you wanted was some good, old-fashioned black magic.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C
The Witches can be streamed exclusively through HBO Max.