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Robert Zemeckis’ spin on ‘The Witches’ is flashy, but lacks any real magic

Robert Zemeckis’ spin on ‘The Witches’ is flashy, but lacks any real magic

Robert Zemeckis’ spin on ‘The Witches’ is flashy, but lacks any real magic
October 31
11:00 2020

“Grandma was right about this hotel. It sure was fancy! She brought us to the Gulf of Mexico to get away from that witch. But she had no idea what we were about to step into.”

After a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents in a car wreck, his loving Grandmamma (Octavia Spencer) tries to break him out of his traumatized shell. However, a witch sets her sights on the two, driving them to hide in a hotel. The boy only ends up stumbling into a meeting of witches, including the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) herself. After being transformed into a mouse, the boy must work with others to change themselves back and stop the Grand High Witch’s plan.

So, the fallout of COVID-19’s war on the movie box office has pretty much horrified studios into scrambling to release their products on whatever streaming services they can get. The latest of these is director Robert Zemeckis’ new adaptation of Roald Dahl’sThe Witches,” which has been shunted onto HBO Max. With Hathaway, Spencer and even Stanley Tucci, did Zemeckis deliver his own, distinct take on Dahl’s classic or turn in a sloppy rehash?

While I can’t really say the latter as I’m not all that familiar with the original book or the previous movie, the concoction Zemeckis assembles from his cauldron is one uneven, flashy mess.

Like with a lot of other movies I’ve previously reviewed, there are a few bright spots, especially Spencer as Grandmamma. She brings her usual charm to the role and pretty much carries the first 20 minutes as a loving matriarch who’s trying her best to raise her grandson in dire straits. Thanks to her, the first 20 or so minutes actually are pretty watchable as a lighthearted family drama.

Hathaway also offers one delightfully scene-chewing performance as the Grand High Witch. While her accent is pretty inconsistent, her flare for overdramatic shouting and hamming it up is 100 percent intact throughout the whole exercise. She’s not hiding how much fun she is having, which is always a treat. Tucci also gets a decent turn as the hotel owner, though his appearances are short. Those hoping for a rekindling of the chemistry between Hathaway and him will be disappointed.

Everywhere else, the movie is either just “meh” or even below that.

The writing is pretty tepid. After those first 20 minutes, the movie wastes little time on developing its characters, their emotional conflicts or even the incredibly two-dimensional antagonists. While I am aware the Witches weren’t all that developed in previous versions, I think Zemeckis could have made a much bigger mark by expanding more on the witch lore and perhaps even developing some minor inklings of horror in the latter half.

Zemeckis also does not seem to really use the racially charged setting of 1960s Alabama as anything more than a pretty backdrop to the conflict. While Grandmamma briefly talks about how witches will target poor, marginalized children over those with richer parents, the implications are glossed over and the movie seems deathly afraid of exploring anything substantive.

The movie’s flashiness isn’t all that impressive — while Zemeckis is known to indulge in and innovate with impressive CGI, everything in “The Witches” feels shockingly out-of-step with everything else he has done. The effects are sloppy, with an uneven slickness to them that looks like they were pulled from a really bad, early 2000s kid’s fantasy. It feels kind of lifeless.

Keep in mind, Zemeckis is the guy who made the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump” and “Polar Express,” among many more effects-heavy films. He’s a guy known for pushing the envelope on computer wizardry, but the effects here are just embarrassing in comparison to everything else he has done, even the borderline disastrous “Welcome to Marwen.”

Even in his more work-for-hire projects, Zemeckis brought something to the table. While this does have his trademark tracking shots that follow an animated being for quite a while, his directing feels incredibly barebones here. There’s barely any Zemeckis magic to be found.

Tone-wise, the movie really can’t seem to decide on what it wants to be, either. This version of “The Witches” snaps back and forth repeatedly between feel-good sentimentalism and some scenes that were pretty out-there, with some minor body horror and even edginess. I’m surprised the movie didn’t break its own very twisted neck from the constant whiplash.

“The Witches” pretty much continues Zemeckis’ downward spiral as a creative force. For a fun, family-friendly Halloween time, the original 1990 version has its fans while “Hocus Pocus” is a seasonal classic. For those looking for something more hardcore, both versions of “Suspiria” absolutely slap, Robert Eggers’The VVitch” is fantastic and I’ve heard nothing but great things about “The Love Witch.” Their cauldrons are full of far more fire than this.

Final rating: 2/5

Featured image: Courtesy HBO Max

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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