Robert Zemeckis and Anne Hathaway unite to take on the children of the world this Hallowe’en

The Witches

Source: HBO Max/Warner Bros

‘The Witches’

Dir: Robert Zemeckis. US. 2020. 104mins.

Full of spectacle but short on magic, Roald Dahl’s The Witches finds Robert Zemeckis leaning hard on action-adventure and CGI, leaving audiences with a busy and sentimental tale that displays little of the wit or sophistication that Nicolas Roeg brought to his 1990 adaptation. Anne Hathaway has fun camping up her role as the Grand High Witch, who has a nefarious plan for all the world’s annoying little children, but on the whole the film is surprisingly impersonal — a far cry from the enchanted, heartfelt entertainments that Zemeckis once delivered.

The Witches favours technology over characters

The Witches begins streaming on HBO Max in the US on October 22, with a theatrical release planned internationally for October 28, where the Zemeckis name will draw audiences, alongside the presence of Hathaway and fellow Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer, and, of course, Roald Dahl fans. Arriving just in time for Hallowe’en, this Warner release may end up being unfavourably compared to Roeg’s version, though, which starred a majestic Anjelica Huston in the Hathaway role.

Set in Alabama in 1968, the film stars Jahzir Bruno as an unnamed boy who goes to live with Grandma (Spencer) after his parents die in a car crash. They have a warm rapport, but she wants him to know one thing: witches are real, and they’ve made it their mission to turn children into animals. After encountering one such witch, they escape to a posh hotel, only to discover that a witch convention, led by the fearsome Grand High Witch (Hathaway), is taking place at the same time.

The 1983 book, as visualised by Roeg, preserved Dahl’s sense of mischief and dark humour. (In addition, his use of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop for some of the effects gave the film a lovingly handmade quality.) But where that 1990 film respected its young audience’s intelligence and wasn’t afraid to feature some genuinely upsetting images — including shots of the witches without their disguises — the Zemeckis remake tends to be cutesy and juvenile.

With a screenplay co-written by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, the new adaptation emphasises life lessons — specifically, the idea that your character is more important than your outward appearance. And while that would seem to be a meaningful moral for a film in which the boy and his new friend Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) will both get transformed into mice by the witches, Zemeckis mostly recycles the same fervent tearjerking that felt far fresher in Forrest Gump and The Polar Express. Like that latter picture, The Witches favours technology over characters, and as a result we never really feel close to this melancholy child. (Chris Rock’s strenuously enthusiastic narration as the now-grownup orphan does nothing to help.)

Hathaway recalls Huston’s performance by affecting a comically thick German accent, but her portrayal isn’t as terrifying as her predecessor’s. The actress has a gift for slow-burn exasperation, which can occasionally be delightful. (And the massive jaw with razor-sharp teeth that has been provided to her by the effects team is the film’s best CGI.) But like the boy, this villainess feels like an afterthought at the mercy of Zemeckis’ set pieces and digital trickery.

Much of the film’s emotional burden is put on Spencer, whose character must lift the boy’s spirits and also figure out how to outsmart the Grand High Witch’s scheme. Sadly, however, Grandma isn’t particularly compelling, although Spencer has it better than Stanley Tucci, who plays a one-note Southern caricature as Mr. Stringer, the anxious hotel manager who tries to maintain order even after discovering he has a rat infestation.

Dahl’s stories understood the complexity of childhood, and by maintaining the author’s original backstory for the boy, Zemeckis suggests that real-world horrors like losing one’s parents can be just as terrifying as anything a hideous witch could concoct. But the director doesn’t draw well-rounded performances from Bruno or Eastick, failing to capture the awe or confusion of youth. What we get instead are adrenalised chase scenes and needlessly showy special effects that lack charm. Joanna Johnston’s lavish costumes are a treat, and Gary Freeman’s handsome production design makes the hotel feel like a palace. But the soul of Dahl’s original can’t be reproduced as easily.

Production companies: ImageMovers, Necropia, Experanto Filmoj

Worldwide distribution: Warner Bros.

Producers: Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke, Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, Luke Kelly

Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis & Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, based on the book by Roald Dahl

Production design: Gary Freeman

Editing: Jeremiah O’Driscoll, Ryan Chan

Cinematography: Don Burgess

Music: Alan Silvestri

Main cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Bruno, Codie-Lei Eastick, Kristin Chenoweth, Chris Rock