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‘The Witches’ Fails to Cast a Spell

The Witches, as far as remakes go, isn’t that bad. I’ve seen worse, but I’ve also seen better. As kids movies go, it is a mediocre attempt kept afloat by a menagerie of performances by actors having a grand old time.

Robert Zemeckis breathes new life into the children’s tale, albeit with mixed results. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book by Zemeckis, Guillermo del Toro, and Kenya Barris, The Witches, starts out a creepy and absorbing fairytale. But then it slowly devolves into a tonal mess until finally, it collapses upon itself in a wacky and tiresome shambles.

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Octavia Spencer as Grandmother with her grandson and his two new friends

The Witches is a movie that wants to commit to its children’s book logic and feels compelled to comment on the ugly truths of the past. Except doing both is a tightrope act, and if not done just right, it can dilute both aspects. Zemeckis fails, and consequently, moments that deal with the harsh realities of our past feel stifled because neither Zemeicks nor the other writers carry through on it. 

One of the changes Zemeckis and his writers make is making Hero (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) and Grandmother (Octavia Spencer) Black. Narrated by Hero as an adult voiced by Chris Rock, The Witches takes place in Demopolis, Alabama, in 1967. Unfortunately, while the film places Voodoo as good, preferring to call Grandmother a “healer” and all other magic as evil, it never fully addresses the racism of the time. Instead, it hints and implies but behaves as if everything implied and hinted at didn’t happen.

For example, it shows the poverty that working-class Blacks often faced during that time, especially during Grandmother’s flashbacks as she tells Hero about the first time she learned about witches. When she realizes the two have run afoul of another witch, she takes her grandson and goes to a five-star hotel, The Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel. Her cousin was a chef there for over 30 years. 

Hero rightfully worries that the witches would only follow. Her response is an example of how the movie doesn’t quite understand the time or the place. “Because child, there’s nothing but rich white folks at the Grand Orleans Imperial Isle Hotel. And witches only prey on the poor, the overlooked, the kids they think nobody is going to make a fuss about if they go missing.” It’s wild to watch a movie set in the 60s and watch a Black grandma tell her Black grandchild that the hotel will be safe because it’s swarming with rich white people in such an earnest tone. 

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Grandmother (Spencer) and Jahzir Kadeem Bruno as Hero

Part of the problem is not that The Witches has three writers but that it seems none of them talked to the other. What’s more, it sometimes feels as if Barris was not involved with other parts of the movie. Grandma’s explanation is all but ignored when the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) lures young Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), the son of a wealthy Englishman, into her trap. One could argue poor Bruno’s parents were neglectful and, as such, wouldn’t miss him, but even that doesn’t hold water as we learn the Grand High Witch plans to turn every child in the world into rats.

When they arrive at the hotel, the staff, all Black, stare in awe at Grandmother as she checks in. A subtle hint that they have never seen a Black person check-in at the hotel before. Yet, Grandmother is treated kindly and welcomed by the Hotel manager Mr. R.J. Stinger the III (Stanley Tucci). 

Worse is that all three writers can’t entirely scrub the anti-Semitism out of Roald Dahl’s text. Little words, phrases, and coded personality traits still shine through, dog-whistles of a sort. To say nothing of the way it wallows in the old trope of disfigurement equals body horror.

If I seem fixated on these things, it is because they are at odds with what the movie is trying to do both intentionally and unintentionally. The Witches makes its main characters Black in 1967 but then makes no honest attempt to address how that would affect Hero or Grandmother in 1967. Zemeckis and his co-writers want to make The Witches for a new generation but never fully dare to remake it in a new image. Instead, they try to stay true to the text. In some instances, Dahl’s way of speaking honestly and directly to children shines through, such as Rock’s opening narration involving a slide show.

In a way, it’s a shame. Tucci, Hathaway, and Spencer or having the time of their lives. Spencer as the wise, world-weary, Grandmother is–as always–a delight. One scene early on has her dancing and lip-syncing to a record to try and cheer up Hero. It is such a beautifully tender moment. It’s a tragedy the rest of the movie can never come close to duplicating.

Hathaway and Tucci are having a ball camping it up. As the put upon, stuck-up Hotel manager, Tucci delivers every line with a sneering sort of obsequiousness. He and Hathaway have some of the best gags in the film as Hathaway skulks, sneers, and cackles her way as the Grand High Witch. The Witches doesn’t work because these three performances are so pitch-perfect that had the film been a little better; this would have been a joy to behold.

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Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch and the boy turned mouse Hero

The Witches isn’t so awful you can’t sit through it. But after a while, Zemeckis begins making odd choices. One of the odder ones was the casting of Kristin Chenoweth as Daisy, Hero’s pet mouse. It is revealed once Hero and Bruno are turned into mice by the witches that she is a child turned mouse as well. Except Hero and Bruno are actual children and are voiced by them as well. 

But Chenoweth, who we never see in human form, sticks out like a sore thumb as she plays Daisy as a southern dixie chick-which is a fine choice but seems out of place. Kadeem and Eastick play their characters much more grounded, although Eastick’s Bruno seems inspired by Augustus Gloop. Still, they are children played by children as children. Chenoweth’s Daisy sounds like she’s from another movie; she doesn’t feel like a child so much as an adult playing a precocious child.

Kadeem, especially, never once plays a false note. His Hero is a wounded, scared, but courageous boy who misses his parents and loves his Grandmother. Kadeem is the most natural of the three children, his performance never once feeling broad or theatrical.

All of this is a shame because Don Burgess, the cinematographer, is doing his best to make The Witches a visceral and exciting film for children. The film is bright and colorful while also framed so that, at times, it feels storybook-like. But even Burgess can’t save the movie once the “wacky antics” start. 

Yet, Burgess is also part of the problem. When The Witches first came out, there was some criticism over how it handled how inhuman the witches looked. The problem is that they seemed to have modeled their look on how certain disabled people look. Horror movies and fairy tales have long since trafficked in the trope of using disabled or disfigured people as visual short-cuts for being evil. But Burgess and Zemicks linger on the deformities, emphasizing them, making you see them.

We get long shots of the witch’s deformed toe or hands–as if to hit home how sick and disgusting it is. The Witches don’t frame these, albeit brief moments with empathy. Instead, these moments cast a thin veneer of exploitation on an already confused and mishmashed children’s tale. 

The Witches is disappointing. If for no other reason than that the talent behind the camera seems wholly concerned with placating as opposed to trying to tell an old story in a new way. The movie doesn’t quite know how to address the issue of race while at the same time realizing it can’t ignore it, and by the end we have the tonal mess that is The Witches

Images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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Author

  • Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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