Review: Reimagined 'The Witches' stumbles with its lack of magic and wonder
Courtesy of HBO MAX
With an emphasis on heavy VFX and less practical effects, director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump” and “The Polar Express”) thinks bigger is better when it comes to reimagining Roald Dahl’s 1983 classic “The Witches.” He’s certainly enlisted a buzzy cast of Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, and Chris Rock to add some flavor, but Zemeckis can never make a live action movie where motion capture technology isn’t used, even though we saw in “Welcome to Marwen,” The Polar Express,” and “A Christmas Carol” it’s just a glorified deep fake.
In any case, “The Witches” is an earnest, though bamboozled attempt at bringing the iconic story into the 21st century where the heart is lost amid a hodgepodge of kooky CGI gimmickry and Hathaway doing her best Slenderman impersonation. At least the liberties taken with the material are welcome additions. For starters, Zemeckis sets the earlier scenes not in England, but in rural Alabama with an African American grandmother (Spencer) raising her grandson (Jahzir Bruno) after his parents died in a horrific car accident.
Through an opening prologue by Chris Rock, we learn that evil, child murdering witches walk among the population, planted in small towns to sniff out young kiddos. The grandmother understands such folklore and relives her own childhood encounter with a witch but doesn’t waste time whisking her grandson to a seaside resort when he becomes the target of a local spell wielding enchantress. Except their arrival happens to coincide with that of the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) and her batch of cronies from around-the-globe to detail their plans for total child extermination.
Far more cartoonish and slightly scarier than Angelica Huston from the 1990 film, Hathaway is certainly striving for campy zaniness, but she’s hosed over with a CGI paintbrush that undercuts the performance. With her hands looking as though they were plucked from a crab, a skittishly bald head, and a mouth that opens from all ends, The Grand High Witch comes across like a final boss in a video game than an actual character. I’ll never understand why remakes think pouring money into digital renderings is the answer when their predecessors were far more effective with cheaper practical alternatives.
The one aspect that does work is the children: the grandson and his pal Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) and their eventual mouse transformation after being caught behind enemy lines. With the evolution of motion capture, Zemeckis can give the CGI critters facial expressions and a fluffy, cute, demeanor that was missing in the early nineties. It gave me hope that when Disney continues to run out of ideas and they do an eventual live action remake of “Ratatouille,” Remy will look dapper.
But “The Witches” biggest failure is not understanding the simplicity of Roald Dahl’s imagination. Be it “The BFG” or “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” visionary filmmakers think the solution is more, when it’s less. Allow the characters to breath and settle into the narrative, whereas a glossy, hypercaffinated presentation only serves as a distraction from the real story. Which underneath all the garb has an enlightening tale about children facing their fears and working together to stop a common enemy. At the end of the day, Zemeckis joins the ranks of ambitious directors who fail to uphold Dahl’s unique standards.
THE WITCHES premieres on HBO MAX Thursday October 22nd