Robert Zemeckis’ remake of “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” continues to prove that modern technology doesn’t translate into a better experience.
This newest adaptation of Dahl’s 1983 fantasy novel misses just about every mark — shedding the dark, twisted tone for a child-friendly romp that borders on over-the-top “Looney Tunes” action and tone. There’s such an overuse of CG throughout — from the basic set designs to the witches and the antics of the mice — that everything on screen feels weightless and non-threatening. Throw in a narration track provided by Chris Rock, who sounds like he’s coming off a sugar high, and what little tension that might be present is discarded in favor of an escapist fantasy adventure.
This new adaptation changes out the European setting of the original story for the 1960s deep south. Octavia Spencer takes the role of Grandmother, a former witch hunter who’s gone into retirement to raise the unnamed narrator. His parents are killed in an accident when he’s young, and he’s taken in by the loving Grandmother. After a chance encounter with a witch in a store, Grandmother jumps into action in order to save her adopted grandchild and other children.
The duo arrives at a hotel, which just happens to be the site of a large witch gathering. The nefarious group is led by Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch. These witches are supposed to be skurges of children all over the world. They hate children in every way and want to destroy them by turning them into mice, and then exterminating them. The plan is about as dumb as the rest of the movie. But when the narrator and his friend are turned into mice, they have to do what they can to save other children from a similar fate.
Admittedly, the change of setting is the film’s best element. It’s refreshing to see more and more genre films and TV shows embracing characters of color and their accompanying settings. Spencer does a commendable job as Grandmother, balancing the ludicrous nature of her character with that warm heart and love that she’s known for on screen.
Hathaway does her best to salvage the role, but she’s covered in so much bad makeup — and later, horrible CG — that she’s neither scary nor entertaining. Her full witch appearance is that of a bald woman with minor scarring, a mouth full of teeth that looks like it copied “Mortal Kombat’s” Mileena, hands with three fingers and feet with one toe each. Compared to Angelica Huston’s similar character in the 1990 adaptation, which legitimately gave children nightmares, Hathaway feels more like a comic relief character masquerading as the film’s big bad. She tries to use some sort of back accent that is more comical than intimidating.
The film’s main fault is its overreliance on CG. So much of the action is so over-the-top and weightless because Zemeckis relies more on computer effects than he does on convincing direction or storytelling. His adaptation lacks anything resembling restraint — throwing caution to the wind with set pieces designed more for a large budget comic book adaptation rather than a more fantastical dark children’s story. This is a movie that could have been made with a much smaller budget with a more focused approach on making the witches actually menacing. Zemeckis — at least the modern Zemeckis, who has given us such gifts as “Beowulf” and “Mars Needs Moms” — is just not right for this adaptation. The Zemeckis that gave us “Back to the Future” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” would have been better. It seems he’s just lost his touch with genre fare these days.
“Roald Dahl’s The Witches” was originally set to be released in theaters this year, before COVID struck. Warner Bros. instead published it on its streaming service, HBO Max, and that’s probably the right decision. In theaters, this movie would have been easily overlooked for much better experiences. On a streaming service in need of content, it’s just entertaining enough to provide a passive two hours of entertainment, while not demanding anything of its viewers. The movie isn’t captivating enough to demand children and adults sit, glued to the television, for its entire runtime. But, it might just be alright enough for background noise. For a much more entertaining and terrifying adaptation, check out the 1990 release.
“Roald Dahl’s The Witches” is available now on HBO Max.
Josh Rouse lives in Lawton.