“The Witches”- Movie Review

Ah, it feels good to be back! Sorry for the weeks-long disappearance. Between a few personal projects I’ve been working on, to the lack of significant releases and the stress of the 2020 presidential election, my focus has been on everything but the movies. But now that my to-do list and my anxiety are winding down, the Night Owl is ready to get back to business. Let’s talk about The Witches shall we?

Debuting on HBO Max on October 22nd, the latest adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel of the same name sets its stage in 1968 Alabama. A young boy (played by Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) loses both his parents in a car accident and goes to live with his grandmother (played by Octavia Spencer). After an encounter with a nefarious stranger, the boy and grandma take refuge in a nearby hotel. Unfortunately for them, they aren’t the only new arrivals. A coven of witches, led by the glamorous Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), have also checked in, with plans to turn the world’s children into mice. When their paths cross, all hell breaks loose.

Roald Dahl is not an author I grew up with. I remember reading Charlie & The Chocolate Factory sometime in elementary school, but only after I’d gotten acquainted with the 1973 Gene Wilder movie. Every other encounter with Dahl has been through the film adaptations of his work, even then, I haven’t encountered a lot. I saw the 1990 version of The Witches only recently, near the start of October, just in time for Halloween, and it made a good first impression. The film had imaginative storytelling, a dark sense of humor, and a cruel edge to it that I want to say was prolific among most kids movies of the 1980s. I’m certain that if I saw this when I was a kid, I would’ve had nightmares for weeks on end.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures via Facebook

The 2020 version aims to achieve a similar effect, to little avail. That’s not to say it’s bad. The film does have a few solid pros. It’s a good-looking movie, for one. The cinematography is far from interesting, and the CGI is wonky at times, but at the very least it’s colorful and pleasing to look at. The acting is decent as well, with Octavia Spencer and Jahzir Kadeem Bruno especially giving likeable performances that keep you hooked on the story. Overall the film captures the sinister yet playful energy often exuded in Dahl adaptations. If I’m judging it on pure entertainment value alone, I’d say it’s an enjoyable watch. Though I doubt it’ll stick with people the same way the original did.

What made the 1990 version so effective was its atmosphere. Director Nicolas Roeg leaned heavily into the narrative’s darker themes, namely the threat of child predators. As a result, moments of the film are genuinely unnerving (strangers enticing children with chocolate and candy) and haunting (the story of the girl in the painting). The film has a palpable sense of danger, something the remake is sorely missing.

This new adaptation leans more into the children’s fantasy nature of the story. It stays consistently light in terms of tone, and there’s very little darkness to be found. Moments that try to come off as menacing wind up being awkward. Case in point: Hathaway’s performance. It’s a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, she is enjoyably over-the-top. Her faux-sophistication, exaggerated accent and grandeur as the Grand High Witch makes for an entertaining character to watch. But sometimes she goes a little too far overboard, resorting to gravely screams while being painted over with iffy CGI that renders her entire performance a mixed bag. Additionally, the use of narration was a weird stylistic choice. Chris Rock plays the older version of the young lead, and provides voiceover narration that once or twice serves a purpose but most times does nothing to advance the storytelling. Rock’s voice sticks out like a sore thumb- think if Gilbert Godfrey did voiceover for The Princess Bride– and as a result, his narration does more to distract than to engage. In my opinion, the filmmakers should’ve either gotten a different actor to do the voice or eliminated the voiceover all together.

In the end, the 2020 adaptation of The Witches is just another adaptation. There’s no point in its existence, nor am I confident that it’ll have any long-lasting resonance in the public conscience. There’s a reason the 1990 version has garnered a cult following. The film indulged in a theme that in itself is universal, and the way in which it’s conveyed, through stellar practical effects and an eerie tone, allowed it to get under people’s skin in a meaningful way. Zemekis’s version is very light. It’s a competently made movie, and it’s clear that the people involved in making it were having a fun time. It’s a light film- thinly engaging, but lacking anything exceptional. It’s the type of remake that’s sure to entertain you in the moment, but be quickly forgotten a short time later.

Cosmic Grade: 3/5 Stars

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