Updated: Dec 15, 2020
The new adaptation from the reliable Robert Zemeckis, who brought us Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, is an entertaining and confounding ride. The story has shifted from England in the 1990 film version starring Anjelica Huston, to Alabama in 1968. It begins with Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno) moving in with his grandma (Octavia Spencer, warm, biting, and lovingly wholesome) following the death of his parents.
With Hero boy traumatized by the accident, Grandma makes it her mission to bring the boy back to life, serving fried chicken, dancing to The Four Tops, and finally, a perfect slice of cornbread. It’s not until Grandma and Hero Boy are shopping at the grocery store that he encounters a strange woman with scars running up past her mouth, and a voice so off-putting that it could cut glass. It seems our Hero Boy has encountered a witch, and Grandma knows from her experience as a young girl that the witch will be back, so she packs the suitcases, jumps in the car and they head off to a fancy, mega-wealthy, predominately white hotel to lay low.
It is then that we are introduced to the Grand High Witch herself, played with internalized and outward chaos by Anne Hathaway, who stamps her way through the hotel foyer, lips glistening and eyes ready to exterminate. The moment she opens her mouth it is difficult to discern where the hell her accent is from, but that just adds to the fun. Her fluid mannerisms turn searing in a single breath. She is so entertaining in this role that any skepticism I may have had of how she would fill the iconic Anjelica Huston’s shoes were dismantled. Just watch as her mouth expands up her cheekbones to see why Guillermo del Toro has a writing credit on this film.
But this is where our plot thins out for the grand set pieces that amazed in the 1990 film version, and are now recycled with captivating special effects, but no real throughline for the story that came before.
Robert Zemeckis serves as both writer and director, providing another serviceable rehashing of an existing film. We’ve recently seen him take award-winning documentary films like Man on Wire and Marwencol, add slight adjustments to create a film with A-list actors, and only manage to see low box office returns. His retellings haven’t been drawing in audiences like the $35-$40 million budgets would have you expect. Yet, like Guy Ritchie, Zemeckis is given more work to do in the hopes that he'll strike gold again soon.
Kenya Barris adds his voice to the adaption, creating a delightful first section of the film before relying on moments from the 1990 version to continue the story. Those familiar with the old version will see Bruno and his family virtually unchanged, dialogue remarkably similar, and scenes regurgitated from the original. Bruno still wants those six chocolate bars and his mother’s frightful shrieks once again offer laughs, but why retell the same subplots as they already exist, but change the stories of the main characters? Amazingly, these three supremely talented writers have not been able to fully reinterpret the story when this could’ve been an opportunity to elevate fresh new voices and add some much-needed light to this adaptation.
Did no one think to call Issa Rae? I can only imagine what Boots Riley might’ve added to the mix.
Perhaps the staging of the scenes in the Grand Ballroom, and later the dining room, would’ve diverted further from the original film with some original perspective. Of course, the cinematography by Don Burgess is sharp from the get-go, twisting Hero Boy from a seated position in the backseat of the car to being flipped upside down while screaming for his parents, who lie unconscious off-screen. It’s an image that immediately tells you you’re in expert hands. There is also no doubt production designer Gary Freeman has given the film a polished, intricate style. But, for the most part, it all feels safe.
Look, this film is a fun ride. If I didn’t have my boyfriend sitting next to me I would’ve been scared shitless at many points. It’s as entertaining as you want it to be and there is no doubting Zemeckis’s talent adds some new life to Roald Dahl's story. But given the amount of money spent making a movie we’ve already seen before, and the heart of the story lost for fantastic special effects, I think this film is saying more than it intends to, which is that reinterpretations of classic films need more originality.
But here we are at a time when classic films are being retold for a new generation. Animations are turning into Live Action and millions of dollars are spent for millions more. This film went into production amid this resurgence, which has seen its triumphs (Lion King - $1.65 billion; Aladdin - $1.05 billion) as well as losses (The Call of the Wild - $107 million; Dr. Dolittle - $245 million). What we see overall is an over-reliance on pre-existing content and a distrust in creatives to showcase new stories and adaptations of books or games that haven’t been explored.
This version of The Witches is pricey. Stick around for the end credits to see the number of artists it took to bring the film to life. There is no doubt that these high budgeted studio films bring in a lot of jobs to creatives building their resumes or wanting to continue in their profession. But when it comes to creativity and servicing an updated version of an existing film at the hands of a low-risk director, are studios just playing it safe? At the end of the film, when the mayhem ends and grandma and Hero Boy come up for air, it's difficult to see how this investment would've paid off had the world remained open. I don’t think anyone would’ve been surprised if The Witches wasn’t a box office success, but we’ll never know because the world has indeed changed and the hits for the studios keep coming.
What’s clear with The Witches is that it’s going to take a better script, more risks in the creative team, and some much-needed individuality to bring in a new era of adaptations. Overall it is an entertaining, serviceable film. That’s all, but is that enough?