The Witches: Plastic Dahl, by David Bax
Roal Dahl was publishing stories as early as the 1940s and his best known novels came out in the 60s, 70s and 80s. But being a child in the 90s meant coming of age in the midst of a golden age of Dahl adaptations. Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach and Danny DeVito’s Matilda were both released in 1996 but the decade began with Nicolas Roeg’s masterful, Jim Henson-assisted The Witches. Now, 30 years later, Robert Zemeckis has undertaken a new interpretation of the 1983 novel, with his beloved tech-wizardry in place of Henson’s puppets and some other changes to boot. Things start off well enough, faithfully reproducing Dahl’s matter-of-fact willingness to put children in danger, be it existential or mundane (there’s even a seemingly positive reference to spanking). But the more Zemeckis becomes enamored with grotesque digital effects, the further this The Witches strays from the physical and emotional stakes, not to mention the wonder, that made the story work in the first place.
Zemeckis, along with co-screenwriters Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, relocate the tale from England’s South to America’s, make the protagonist (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) Black and set events firmly in the late 1960s. This sets up some new material to explore–more on that later–but The Witches otherwise sticks to the story’s particulars. A boy and his grandmother check into a fancy resort that happens to also be unknowingly hosting an annual convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), who want to turn all the world’s children into mice, starting with our hero.
Before we arrive at the hotel, though, we need to get through a lot of set-up about how witches operate in this universe and Grandma’s experiences with them. As heavy as it is with exposition, this first big chunk of The Witches is the most enjoyable, more tonally bizarre than visually unpleasant. It helps that most of the details are doled out by the singularly talented Spencer. There are some other names in the cast, including Stanley Tucci as the hotel manager and Chris Rock and Kristin Chenoweth in voice-only roles, but Grandma’s big-heartedness is only really matched by the grandiloquent evil of Hathaway’s Grand High Witch. To our benefit and the movie’s detriments, no one else is having as much fun here.
One of the reasons to remake a movie is to see a new actor take on a beloved role. Hathaway can’t match the sinister regality of Anjelica Huston but she gives it her level best. Another reason to reinterpret a classic is to see if you can say anything new with it. By changing the race of the leads, The Witches gives itself an opportunity to comment on the heightened vulnerability of nonwhite minorities, especially those from a precarious economic background.
It’s neither subtle nor deep but it’s more of a commitment than the director’s politically agnostic Forrest Gump. Like that movie, though, The Witches wields its soundtrack as a cudgel of nostalgia. With the Four Tops, Otis Redding and the Isley Brothers, Zemeckis once again lets his audience’s cultural imagination of the past do the table-setting for him, relinquishing him from bearing too much responsibility to the era.
Computer-generated visual effects are certainly more involved than simply paying for the rights to a golden oldie or three but Zemeckis’ over-reliance on them here is, in its own way, just as lazy. The human-to-animal transformations; the death’s-head grin of the witches in their true form; even the common house pets… All of these over-lit effects are more garish than creepy. The Witches is a CGI nightmare, entirely the wrong kind of horror movie.