Dir: Robert Zemeckis. Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth. PG,106 mins
Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of The Witches, Roald Dahl’s classic children’s tale, is positively glorious. Did we really need another stab at it? No, but Anne Hathaway clearly relished the opportunity. Her performance here, stepping nimbly into Anjelica Huston’s shoes, is so exquisitely watchable, it forgives any number of sins. As Lilith, the Grand High Witch and overseer of her own global coven, she gives every single word and gesture a little flourish. Swathed in giant collars, pompadour wigs, and houndstooth jackets, she poses and postures with every line. Her pan-European accent turns the word “garlic” into “gorrrrrrrrlic” – as if she were channelling Madeline Kahn in Blazing Saddles, all the stars of Hammer Horror, and Boris and Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle at the same time. She’s comical where Huston was more slickly sinister, but no less delightfully camp.
In fairness, the film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, has its own moments of inspiration. It also trades in the same slick and overproduced visuals that hamper so much of family-friendly genre these days. Dahl’s 1983 novel has had its timeless English setting swapped for Alabama in the late Sixties, so that it’s now vaguely rooted in Black Southern culture – its food (cornbread and fresh crab), its jukebox classics, and the Voodoo religion. It doesn’t necessarily change the nature of the story (apart from being a minor win for representation), but it at least lets Zemeckis put his own stamp on it. This is the director behind Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, after all. Even in a minor work like this, he’s still able to bake in his own sunny vision of Americana – all exaggerated colours and pristinely manicured sets.
A narrator (Chris Rock, in a brief cameo) reveals to us two essential facts: witches are real and they hate children. He then dives into the sorry tale of his own upbringing. As a boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), he’s sent off to live with his grandmother, Agatha (Octavia Spencer), following the untimely death of his parents. She’s the guardian everyone dreams of – when he’s down, she’ll put a smile on his face by dancing in the living room to the Four Tops’s “Reach Out (I'll Be There)”. When he starts to wallow, she’ll shake him out of his self-pitying routine (“Do I feel bad? Yeah. But not sorry.”). And when a witch comes knocking at his door, looking for her next victim, she’ll immediately whisk him away to a swanky, coastal resort for his own protection. That place is filled with the rich, white, and powerful – “and witches only prey on the poor and overlooked”. Little does she know that Lillith’s chosen the same spot for her coven’s annual shindig, and this year’s she’s brought a formula that will turn every child on Earth into a poor, helpless mouse.
The biggest fear here was always that Zemeckis’s take on The Witches would never match up to Roeg’s unearthly terrors. Nothing here is as imaginatively grotesque as what Jim Henson's Creature Shop managed to come up with – particularly the moment when Huston rips off her own face to reveal a gnarled, puss-filled goblin beneath. But the 2020 film does have horror maestro Guillermo del Toro on board, sharing co-writer credits with Zemeckis and Kenya Barris, and a touch of his macabre sensibility has bled through on screen.
The film’s scary – just in the unnerving, body horror sense of the word. The witches, out of their disguises, have three-pronged alien hands, stumps for feet, and crocodile smiles that slither far beyond the corners of their mouths. In one sequence, Lilith’s arms extend like long, disjoined tentacles – broken bones cracking in every which way. But even the slightest whiff of practical effect has been excised from The Witches. Every possible creation is CGI – the children after they’ve been turned into mice, the bottles of magic potion, the cat who does nothing but sit around. It’s all been cranked up to an artificial extreme. At least The Witches gives Hathaway a suitably exorbitant stage to do her thing.