As surprising as it might seem given that I’m a 90’s kid, The Witches starring Anjelica Houston was never a big part of my childhood – I used to catch bits and pieces of it on TV then, but I always turned it off because I was still too scared of that witch transformation. In a way, Nicolas Roeg’s film haunted me without me ever watching it. I finally saw it last night for the first time, and adored it. Unfortunately, however, this new version of The Witches, helmed by no other than Robert Zemeckis, is much unfairly doomed with the shadow of the story’s previous adaptation – now a cinematic classic – looming over its shoulder. So I, who has no strong nostalgic bond to the original movie, will review it the only way I deem fair: without paying any mention to its predecessor. From this moment on, that is.
The Witches tells the story of a young Boy (Jahzir Bruno) in Alabama who lives with his loving Grandmother (Octavia Spencer), as the two of them seek refuge in a prestigious hotel after coming in contact with a witch. Little do they know, however, that this very hotel is the place where the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) will hold a convention with all of her witchy subordinates to set in motion a wicked plot to turn every kid in the world into mice. When the poor Boy himself and his newly acquainted friend Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick) get caught up in the witches’ grasp and are turned into rodents, they must figure out a way to reverse the spell and stop the evil sorceresses from bestowing the same fate upon the rest of the world’s children.
Children in peril is a very recurrent theme in the work of Roald Dahl – who’s responsible for the likes of Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG -, and in The Witches, there is a distinct subtext of the mistreatment of kids in the hands of adults. The Grand High Witch’s coven plotting to get rid of every child in the world under the façade of being a philanthropist association in combat of child cruelty is an especially clever allusion highlighted by the script (penned by Zemeckis, Guillermo Del Toro and Kenya Barris), and brings out one of this film’s biggest sources of horror: the sheer sadistic hate that these witches direct towards little ones – make no mistake, this is a horror movie, only it’s kids horror, and one of the finest examples of it in recent years.
I think there’s an inherent pretension in grown adults trying to say whether a horror movie designed for kids is scary or not, after all, how could we? So I’m not gonna act like I know whether this will scare the kids or not, but I’ll say that in all honesty, I think it will, because while I was not necessarily scared, even I found myself somewhat disturbed by some of this film’s content. First of all, the aforementioned feelings the witches share for children: rather than plain disgust or disdain, they display unabashed, resentful and angry hatred for the little kids, and the way that’s printed on Anne Hathaway’s deliciously diabolical performance as the Grand High Witch is, quite honestly, uncomfortable to say the least. She is very comical and delightfully fun to watch in Hathaway’s glorious cartoony accent, but at the same time, her sadistic attitude keeps reminding you of just how evil this character is.
That is complemented by the film’s visual work. Hathaway’s cracked-open Fright Night-esque demonic smile is a very unsettling sight, for example, achieved phenomenally by the visual effects. The overall execution of the Grand High Witch’s corporeal design evokes discomfort; her deformed claws for hands, the single long-nailed toe on her feet that makes her walk in high steps like a bird (with Hathaway’s body language on point), the way her bones twist to stretch out her arms as she seeks her prey… The film cleverly uses the verisimilitude of body transfiguration to unsettle the viewer, and combined with the dark implications behind the villain’s hatred and intentions, the result is quite effective.
The rest of the cast is every bit as charming as it gets. Jahzir Bruno gives a solid – albeit mostly vocal – lead performance and shares good chemistry with his fellow mice Codie-Lei Eastick and Kristin Chenoweth; together the trio delivers fun dialogue throughout the picture. It is Octavia Spencer, however, who’s the film’s big scene-stealer as opposed to Hathaway. Her portrayal of the protagonist’s Grandmother is kind, sympathetic, funny and completely endearing, making it quite impossible not to be in love with her. A Vito Corleone-looking Stanley Tucci, however charismatic he might be, ends up with the short straw of the cast, being unfortunately outshone by his fellow co-stars.
Zemeckis’ direction is smart, dynamic and lively, bringing the story the kind of energy it requires to be an entertaining ride, without failing to capture the whimsy and magic that makes it so unique. On that matter, he’s aided by a fantastic production design that builds a truly stunning, luxurious hotel for the film to take place in; eye-popping and stylish costume design that together with the make-up and hair-styling dresses all the characters – especially the witches – in dazzlingly extravagant, colorful and varied looks throughout the film. The use of visual effects is mostly very effective; while there is some inherent uncanny valley to most of them, Zemeckis is fully aware of it and instead uses the effect to complement the film’s cartoony and whimsical tone. Mostly it works, even if there are a few moments left where the effects aren’t so fortunate. It is a little frustrating, however, to see that this was obviously designed for a 3D experience, and to think that it would probably have looked fantastic in 3D. Alan Silvestri’s original score complements the whole magical adventure in a serviceable manner, even if it isn’t his most impressive work.
Ultimately, The Witches is a witchin’ ride of imagination, magic, silliness and a touch of the macabre. Its lovely characters are ever so charming, and to see them take on such a deliriously evil villain portrayed so energetically by Anne Hathaway is a lot of fun. It won’t revolutionize the industry nor reap the awards season, but this new iteration of Road Dahl’s classic story surely will be a part of many kids’ childhoods, and if you’re feeling like connecting to your inner child to go visit a world of evil, crazy witches this Halloween, it might be a good idea to check this one out.
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