When it comes to children’s fiction, there’s no writer quite like Roald Dahl. As expected, Dahl’s stories are warm and sentimental, but what sets him apart is his darkly comedic and macabre sensibilities. Not to mention that many of his stories conclude in shocking ways, which angered some parents who read these books to their kids. This wonderful contradiction is the backbone of all Roald Dahl stories, and is the reason why they are so difficult to adapt for cinema. It’s not easy to pull off a success like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), which is at once funny, sweet, terrifying, magical and unnerving. Without the right balance of humour, wit, adventure and shock, a Roald Dahl story won’t translate. This is the issue hanging over Robert Zemeckis’ version of The Witches (2020).
Set in Alabama circa 1968, the unnamed young protagonist (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) is adopted by his Grandma (Octavia Spencer) following the accidental death of his parents. His mourning is interrupted by the arrival of a strange and creepy woman who accosts him. He describes her bizarre features to Grandma, who immediately recognises that the woman was a witch. Grandma had a run-in with a witch when she was young, and learnt that witches want to destroy all children by turning them into animals. The protagonist and Grandma escape to a nearby hotel, but the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) has gathered all the witches in order to enact her evil plan of turning children into mice, which will cause the Hotel Manager, Mr Stringer (Stanley Tucci) to call the exterminators.
Firstly, the entire film acts as a showcase for Anne Hathaway’s scenery chewing role as the Grand High Witch. Despite being a well respected Oscar Winner, Hathaway isn’t afraid to jump into sillier roles, as evident by her wonderfully over the top performance. She is let completely off the leash here, allowing herself to be as enjoyably reprehensible as possible. It’s fair to describe her work as like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon show, in that the Grand High Witch is totally aware of how evil she is and loves every second of it. There may be some viewers who write off this performance as camp, but in truth Hathaway breathes so much life into the film that you find yourself waiting for her next scene. Happily, she is matched by Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci, who are clearly having just as much fun as Hathaway.
Sadly, the protagonist and his friends Mary (Kristin Chenoweth) and Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) aren’t quite as magnetic. To be clear, their performances are perfectly acceptable, but they are let down by the rushed script. The characters meet each other, go through some adventures and take turns pulling each other out of a few fires, but their individual arcs and interrelationships don’t completely come across. The intention is to see their friendship grow as the danger intensifies, but we don’t really get a sense of that development. The result is a series of admittedly fun set pieces which don’t give us much investment or connection to our heroes. To smooth over this issue, the film has to dig a little too deep into exposition.
The Witches isn’t the most complicated story, nor should it be. You need an imaginative director to add layers of enjoyment to such a broad narrative, and director Robert Zemeckis is arguably the perfect choice. He is one of the most accomplished directors of modern cinema, bringing us classics like Back to the Future (1985), Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Forrest Gump (1994) and Cast Away (2000). In all of these cases, he was able to find complex narrative depths and cleverly subversive comedy in seemingly shallow places. In those films, every scene is rich was storytelling detail, which completely hypnotised viewers as the films unfolded. While there are individual sequences of The Witches with this same level of care, majority of the narrative is communicated through excessive dialogue. This means there is far too much ‘tell’ and not nearly enough ‘show’.
It could be argued the constant exposition is there to clearly explain things for younger audiences. However, over-explaining things does actually create some plot holes, as some explanations contradict each other. Additionally, cutting out the intrigue results in the film being a slightly passive experience, as there’s not much attention required from the viewer. While this isn’t always a bad thing, it does make The Witches a bit disengaging in moments where it should be highly exciting. This isn’t helped when considering that nearly every conflict is resolved not long after they are set up. Rather than feeling like a singular story, the various adventures and scenarios feel like a series of obstacles for the characters to quickly overcome. Kids will probably still be entertained as these sequences are harmlessly fun when taken on their own.
Similarly, it’s highly likely that children will watch this film wanting to be amazed by imaginative visual effects. With that in mind, there are plenty of moments that rely on computer imagery, and Zemeckis knows how to appropriately reveal these visual elements. The witches themselves require narratively significant computer effects, all of which truly display Roald Dahl’s dark imagination. Despite this, the CGI isn’t as polished as it should be. To be fair, it’s not intending to appear realistic, as Zemeckis is clearly portraying The Witches as a live-action cartoon. Even so, it’s sadly not terribly pleasant to look at and is often times uncomfortably bizarre. Zemeckis is still a pioneer in visual effects, but the work done here indicates that his heart may not have been in it this time.
Even now, Robert Zemeckis is still one of the only working directors fit for Roald Dahl’s material. Under different circumstances, Zemeckis’ version of the The Witches could’ve been worthy of Roald Dahl’s legacy. It’s possible that Zemeckis struggled with the idea of making a film in someone else’s shadow, as Nicolas Roeg’s version of The Witches (1990) is still quite beloved and generally considered one of the best Roald Dahl films. Zemeckis is at his best when he is the original cinematic voice bringing something to life. Zemeckis shows true passion when he can let his own imagination run wild, so I’d be keen to see what he can do with a Roald Dahl book that hasn’t been adapted to screen before.
Best way to watch it: With your brain turned off.