Director: Robert Zemeckis Starring: Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Chris Rock, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci Running Time: 106 mins
When I first saw the trailer for Robert Zemeckis’ new adaptation of The Witches, I couldn’t contain my excitement and immediately sent it round to friends and family. This got reactions varying from lukewarm to stone faced because my loved ones all felt that no one could beat Anjelica Huston’s turn as the Grand High Witch from Nicolas Roeg’s version of The Witches released in 1990. I hadn’t seen that version and so I approached Zemeckis’ film unspoilt by the comparison. Unfortunately, I still didn’t love it!
Part of the reason I had been looking forward to The Witches was because of Zemeckis’ attachment; it’s not for nothing that he’s become synonymous with visual effects via films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future franchise. He’s no stranger to balancing the macabre with humour, as Death Becomes Her can attest. And we know that he can draw a compelling performance from an actor with no one to play against (á la Cast Away) which is a great strength wherever animation/green screen needs to be used. So what’s the problem?
I love Anne Hathaway, and when I first saw that she was attached to the new version of The Witches I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with the role. Unfortunately, either she chose to closely emulate Angelica Huston’s performance or perhaps Zemeckis directed her that way but for me it did not work. Her version of the vaguely Eastern European accent Huston had donned in the 1990 version is really difficult to listen to for 106 minutes. It’s not just that the accent is badly done or not convincing, that’s not unusual sure and can even add charm sometimes. The accent is very grating and shrill, and I understand that this is an in-text indicator of a witch because they’re supposed to have scratchy horrible voices but it took away from the enjoyability of the film for me and I think they could have achieved a similar affect by choosing certain moments for it rather than the full runtime.
Certain moments just didn’t quite make sense because the visual effects were prioritised above the story. In the 1990 film, when we meet the first witch she uses the snake to try and tempt the boy to come closer, whereas here when we meet the first witch she still has the snake but there’s no real reason for it and so we don’t really understand the characters’ motives. During the witches assembly, in the original a member of the audience actually criticises the Grand High Witch’s plan and so it makes sense that she is wiped from existence and shows how ruthless Huston’s character is even to her own kind. However, in the 2020 version a member of the audience asks quite a harmless question but receives the same treatment.
All that said, there were elements of the film that did work well. I was very happy that Octavia Spencer and Jahzir Bruno (and Chris Rock as his older voice) were cast because there’s no reason these characters need to be white and so this was a welcome update from the earlier film. The costume design is absolutely stunning (well done Joanna Johnson!), every outfit that Octavia Spencer and Hathaway are wearing in particular jump from the screen and feel like they belong in Roald Dahl’s world. Octavia Spencer is great in it and I really felt her bond with her grandson come across, the scene’s where she stands up against the Grand High Witch work really well and I wish that relationship had been developed more particularly because in this version they have history. Zemeckis is a visual storyteller and there were scenes like the car crash at the beginning of the film and when Spencer is telling her grandson how to identify a witch where shadows and rain were used to provide the imagery that are fantastic and memorable. It’s very kinetic, not just in the visuals and mise-en-scene but also in how the camera moves, we get a good few swish pans and perspective flips. Maybe I’m just not the audience for this film, but even judging it as a children’s movie I think it would be quite disturbing in parts for younger kids and there’s not much comic relief to lighten the mood!(2.5 / 5)