Imagine going, say … back to the future, and instead of Robert Zemeckis directing The Witches in 2020, he made it in 1990. We would have missed out on Nicolas Roeg’s wonderfully weird original take on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel that was released that year — and maybe Zemeckis’s own disappointing Back to the Future Part III wouldn’t have happened either. In this alternate timeline, Zemeckis was smack in between making Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) and Death Becomes Her (1992), arguably the perfect moment — when the director was creating his oddest and darkest work — for him to tackle Dahl’s beloved, bizarre book about a coven of witches intent on turning all the world’s children into easily exterminated mice.
Instead, we’re in the worst timeline, and the Zemeckis version of The Witches arrives in the director’s decades-long dive into sentimentality and love of special effects above all else. (See 1994’s Forrest Gump, 2004’s The Polar Express, 2009’s A Christmas Carol, and 2018’s Welcome to Marwen.) Some of Dahl’s quirks seep through in a few scenes, whether thanks to Zemeckis or the screenplay credited to the director as well as Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, but the resulting family-centric fantasy is often as murky and bland as the split pea soup — no garlic! — ordered by the witches in the film’s third act.
The trio of writers has created a work that feels cobbled together from three vastly different creatives. The Witches bookends its story with Zemeckis’s touch: classic but entirely predictable pop songs on the soundtrack à la Forrest Gump and a framing narration. Its often overly sentimental tone doesn’t fit with the stranger bits in the middle that feel more like they came from the brain of del Toro. Its heroes are Black … in Alabama … in the late ‘60s, but it only briefly nods to the smart but entertaining social commentary Barris has offered in his TV shows including Black-ish.
Set in 1968, The Witches centers on The Boy (Jahzir Bruno), whose unseen adult self (Chris Rock) narrates the adventure. After the death of his parents, The Boy moves from Chicago to Demopolis, Alabama, where he lives with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). A chance meeting with a witch reveals that his grandma has encountered the evil creatures before, and she is both willing to educate her grandson on them and hesitant to tussle with their kind again. The pair escapes to a glamorous resort, but coincidentally, dozens of witches have gathered at that same hotel. They’re congregating for their convention, under the auspices of membership in the International Society for the prevention of Cruelty to Children. However, the eight-year-old boy soon uncovers that they are witches who hide both their true intentions — transforming all kids into mice — and their true appearances — bald, toeless hags with claws instead of fingers and overlarge mouths filled with razor-sharp teeth. Led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), the crones won’t let The Boy and The Grandmother ruin their evil plot.
Hathaway goes big here, devouring the scenery whole and delighting in every gulp. She has a vaguely Norwegian accent that doesn’t work on every consonant and vowel, but she commits in a film that often refuses to do the same. Despite its handful of nightmarish visual effects (chief among them, Hathaway’s gaping Pennywise-esque maw), this is a far gentler version of Dahl’s story than its 1990 predecessor. Don’t expect the nastier elements of Roeg’s movie to reappear here. No (digital) mice tails were harmed in the making of this movie. The horrors and associated darkness in kids’ entertainment in that era rarely exist on screen today in films and TV marketed to them, and Zemeckis can’t seem to decide whether he wants to tell a story that will keep children up at night or cuddle them.
For a film that has the word “witches” in its title, this is a movie often lacking in magic. Brief moments delight, and they will likely garner the desired giggle or gasp from younger viewers, but the source material promises something far stranger than what we get. The Witches leans more maudlin than macabre, with only a wild performance from Hathaway making it remotely interesting.
“The Witches” is now streaming on HBO Max.