Robert Zemeckis zaps all the wicked black magic out of Roald Dahl’s The Witches

There’s one scene in the 1990 Warner Bros. version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches that no impressionable young viewer could ever forget. It’s the moment when the boy hero, spying from his hiding place within a swanky seaside hotel, catches his first glimpse of the movie’s eponymous villains in their true form, as they rip off the wigs pulled tightly over their hairless heads and their leader, played by Anjelica Huston, sheds her own disguise to reveal the Jim Henson monstrosity lurking underneath. Dahl is said to have hated the movie, as he did most of those made from his sometimes gleefully macabre kid-lit bestsellers. Yet director Nicolas Roeg, whose prior work was decidedly not family friendly, actually came pretty close to capturing the appeal of Dahl’s writing: that feeling of stealing a private glimpse into a secret and sinister world that exists behind the curtain of the normal one. To watch The Witches was to get the same shudder of adolescent excitement that reading it provoked. You were, like its eavesdropping protagonist, seeing something you weren’t supposed to.

That centerpiece sequence, pulled straight from Dahl’s illustrated pages, is restaged by Robert Zemeckis, veteran wizard of special-effects spectacle, in his new adaptation of The Witches. This time, the Grand High Witch is played by a vamping Anne Hathaway, who removes her perfectly coiffed blonde bouffant and emerges, before an audience of fellow bald crones, as a gnashing digital harpy with three-talon claws and a J-horror rictus grin. But though she looks creepy enough (if maybe not as creepy as Roeg’s Creature Shop creation), the scene itself feels curiously… defanged somehow, even as it plays out the same way, with dark schemes and scared boys shrinking into rodents. It’s lost the queasy voyeuristic charge—that child’s-eye blend of awe and revulsion—both the book and the previous movie offered by the bubbling cauldron.

Where is the Zemeckis who projected a cartoon-noir Christopher Lloyd into every child’s nightmares? The same director has thrown a softening, coddling filter over Dahl, preserving the shape of his source material while sanding down its edges. (There are no cigars or missing thumbs to delight the target audience and alarm their guardians.) The plot still revolves around a newly orphaned grade-schooler (Jahzir Bruno) getting a crash course in the wicked ways of the Wicked class, though he’s now an American kid in the Alabama of 1967, which allows Zemeckis to pack the soundtrack with Motown hits. Grandma (Octavia Spencer) regales her ward with stories of real witches hiding in plain sight, of how they hate children, of how to identify them. One is reminded of why Dahl can be tricky to adapt by even those with the right sensibility: His books sometimes operate like glossaries or encyclopedias, forcing filmmakers to stuff pertinent exposition into the mouths of actors. In this case, that burden falls partially on Chris Rock, narrating from a framing device like Forrest Gump.

While Dahl understood that his young readers craved a little danger, Zemeckis never seems sure of how scary he can really make the witches. Hathaway, for all the stretching of her limbs (a toned-down callback to the zombie slapstick of the director’s Death Becomes Her), mostly keeps her tongue planted firmly in cheek, even when it’s moving with the full flowering of her distended, toothy jaw. The action eventually shifts to a towering, glamorous resort, where the boy and his grandmother check in to lose a local sorceress; to their misfortune, their stay happens to coincide with a weekend conference organized by Hathaway’s veritable witch CEO and attended by the entire American coven. (The film does preserve one inspired dark joke from the book: that the malicious guests disguise themselves as an organization called The Royal Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Children.) Roeg’s film had a lot of farcical fun with the havoc loose mice and supernatural mischief might wreak on a snooty, upscale establishment. Though he suitably trades Rowan Atkinson for Stanley Tucci as the harried manager, Zemeckis glosses right over that element.

The Witches

The Witches
Photo: HBO Max

Despite a screenplay cowritten by Guillermo del Toro (a filmmaker who’s made a whole career out of putting fictional children at risk), The Witches is basically Dahl by way of Gump, with all the folksy voice-over, boomer nostalgia, and expensive technological tricks that implies. Like his old pal Steven Spielberg, who sapped up The BFG a few years ago, Zemeckis may be too sentimental for this author and his mean streak. He follows Spielberg’s lead further in treating the work like a springboard for technical exercise—an opportunity to play with scale, as the boy and a fellow unlucky brat (Codie-Lei Eastick) get used to their furry new form, scampering around the hotel, narrowly avoiding the falling feet of the other guests. It’s tempting just to be grateful that Zemeckis hasn’t fully retreated back into the motion-capture animation he blew a decade dabbling in. But if you can take the filmmaker out of the uncanny valley, maybe you can’t take the uncanny valley out of the filmmaker. Nothing in this movie looks real: not the mice, not the clothing, not the hotel. Even the cat, which doesn’t do much but hiss, is a (unconvincing) digital creation.

Zemeckis came of artistic age in the Amblin heyday, when blockbusters pushed the boundaries of all-ages entertainment so far that the PG-13 rating had to be invented. (This was, perhaps not by coincidence, the same era when The Witches was first published.) One might even identify Roeg’s version as a last hurrah for that kind of studio-sanctioned terrorizing of children in the guise of fun for the whole family. Have kids gotten softer or does Hollywood just assume they have? This movie is as much an imposter as its titular attractions; what it’s pretending to be is a story that wasn’t afraid to spook the readers who loved it. Dahl called the last adaptation of The Witches “appalling.” Imagine what he might have said about one that features cute CGI mice dancing to “We Are Family.”

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