‘The Witches’ casts weak spells

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TNS

Film Critic Hunter Friesen reviews the new film adaptations of the classic Roald Dahl novel “The Witches.”

HUNTER FRIESEN

From 1984 to 2000, Robert Zumeckis was an A-level director who could seamlessly blend visual wizardry with fantastical stories. His output during that time consisted of the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Forrest Gump” (for which he won the “Best Director” Oscar) and “Cast Away.”

Since then, Zemeckis has still incorporated fantastical ideas into his films, but his effects work has gotten progressively worse as time goes on. “The Polar Express” is only remembered for its acid-trip inducing digital-capture performances. “Beowulf,” “A Christmas Carol” and “Welcome to Marwen” were visual eye-sores. Even his adult-oriented films such as “Flight” and “Allied” – which are decent – came and went with barely a peep.

Zemeckis has returned once again to the silver screen (or silver television since it was released on HBO Max) with “The Witches,” another movie filled to the brim with computer effects and a crazy story. Unfortunately, this new feature follows right in line with the latter of his filmography and again makes you wonder if we’ll ever get the old Robert Zemeckis back.

“The Witches” is an adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl children’s book of the same name. It was most famously adapted for the screen in 1990 with Anjelica Huston starring as the Grand High Witch.

“The Witches” is narrated by Chris Rock, who in the opening segment explains to the audience that witches are real and are here to prey on little children, especially cute ones. This claim is supported by our narrator’s encounter with witches back in his childhood.

From here we travel back in time to 1960s Alabama. Our narrator, Charlie, has just become an orphan after a freak car accident. He moves in with his grandmother, a lady who would “spank you when you deserved it and hug you when you needed it.”

After some time, Charlie eventually comes face to face with a witch, which brings up memories from his grandma’s past as well. As a precaution, the two of them head to a swanky resort to hide away for a while. Unfortunately for them, this resort is the same location where a coven of witches are planning a nefarious scheme of turning every child into a mouse so that they can be easily squashed. It’s up to Charlie and his grandma to stop these witches before they cause the extinction of all children.

Despite being in a slump for nearly two decades, Robert Zemeckis is still a capable director when it comes to blockbuster filmmaking. “The Witches” still showcases his talent with the camera as he uses a few tricks such as long tracking shots that dip and dive throughout the resort setting. It is kind of cheating since it’s obvious the camera and much of the set are digitally created, but it’s nice to look at nonetheless.

While the visual style of the film is in line with Dahl’s authorial vision, their quality is not up to the technological standards of 2020. With their razor-sharp teeth, hanging talons and bald heads, the witches are pure nightmare fuel that will surely haunt small children (and adults) for days after. They may not look convincing, but they sure look frightening.

Even though the witch effects kept things scary, the mouse effects did not hold up their end of the deal. The entire second half of the film is soiled because of the poor effects work on the rodents. Shockingly, mouse special effects seem to have not progressed in the slightest since “Stuart Little” (“Ratatouille” doesn’t count since that’s all digital).

Filling in the role of the Grand High Witch is Anne Hathaway, who gives a no-holds-barred performance complete with heavy accent work and villainous speech patterns. She’s more cartoonish than most cartoons, which makes her the most memorable of the cast.

Octavia Spencer as the grandmother and Stanley Tucci as the resort manager are much more subdued in their roles, which makes Hathaway stick out even more from the rest of the cast.

The child actors that both play their human selves and voice their mouse counterparts rely too much on overacting to get the point across. Their performances can be both blamed on themselves and Zemeckis’s lackluster acting direction and screenplay, which was co-written by monster aficionado Guillermo del Toro of all people. Nearly all their dialogue is said in all caps with three exclamation points.

Overall: 2.5/5

“The Witches” may not live up to its print and celluloid predecessors, but it has just enough campiness and visual splendor that keeps it exciting from start to finish. It’s not a good film – or even one I wholly recommend – but it’s something that can be semi-enjoyed by the whole family during the waning days of spooky season.