This new spin on the beloved Roald Dahl tale has a fun turn from Anne Hathaway but is hampered by dull antics and slow pacing
Having established himself as something of a CGI trailblazer, Robert Zemeckis is a filmmaker who has repeatedly leaned into middling digital effects movies in favour of the more narratively sturdy works of his past. His recent box office bomb Welcome to Marwen was a bizarre and ineffective experiment – and should have prompted a change of direction. But with this new adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches, he's back doing what he does worst, reducing a beloved children's story into an excessive, CG-addled caper that never gets over its reliance on digital fakery, wasting an otherwise fun performance from Anne Hathaway.
Nicolas Roeg already gave us what might be considered the definitive film adaptation of The Witches with his 1990 version, which starred Anjelica Huston and made the most of some truly frightening and memorable practical effects. This new “reimagined” version is not so much reimagined as “reanimated.” Of course, it goes without saying that the practical effects of the Roeg version hold up far better than the CG witches of this new take, which have an occasionally interesting but far less tangible and therefore less scarring look.
The newly revised version of the plot swaps the book's Norwegian setting for the American Deep South, with an unnamed orphan (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) being taken in by his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after his parents are killed in a car accident. One day, while out shopping, he has a scary encounter with a witch and is later informed by his grandmother – prone to a little medicinal magic herself – of their secret existence. Witches, he's told, are obsessed with turning children into mice so they can be easily killed. True to the original tale, the pair flee to a stately hotel – this one overseen by manager Stanley Tucci, completely phoning it in – where the boy is targeted by a coven, led by Anne Hathaway's Grand High Witch, who have assembled to discuss a devious plan to trick children the world over.
Clearly relishing the chance to go as big as possible, Hathaway's scenery-chewing performance – equipped with a non-specific, wandering European accent – is a double-edged sword; the movie comes to life whenever she's on screen, but falls into a repetitive lethargy when she isn't. And while the movie begins intriguingly enough with some nicely composed shots, Spencer laying the groundwork for what appears to be an emotional tale of grandmother-grandson bonding, its CG-heavy second half can't escape a sense of “been there, done that” – middling mouse-based antics that could have been transposed from essentially any kids' film of the last twenty years. Meanwhile, Alan Silvestri's strained, bombastic score tries to inject urgency to proceedings but only winds up drawing attention to itself.
Roald Dahl's stories always gave children the benefit of the doubt, yet Zemeckis' film is far too patronising and untrusting to follow suit. It signposts everything, repeatedly, sucking out all sense of surprise and discovery. While Roeg's film showed real staying power, this one is instantly vaporised from your mind the second it's over. In fact, it suffers similarly to Steven Spielberg's 2016 version of The BFG, a slightly better film that also managed one interesting performance but was bogged down by otherwise flimsy CG antics. The Witches is just further proof of Zemeckis' tendency for losing the plot in favour of garish fakery. Worst of all, it doesn't have the nerve to consider its target audience – kids – as equals.
The Witches is now streaming on various platforms.Where to watch