Spoiler warning! This article contains spoilers for The Witches (2020).
The Witches (2020) is a fantasy film directed by Robert Zemeckis [Back to the Future, Forrest Gump] starring Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer, and Anne Hathaway. The film was much anticipated by fans of the original story and film, but lots of film fans were left disappointed after watching the remake.
As a whippersnapper, I loved to read Roald Dahl’s books, as many others did. The Witches (1983) stood out as my favourite title of his, and I read it numerous times. I was, and remain, a fan of all things witchy and spooky, and my copy sat proudly on my shelf accompanied by the likes of authors Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett.
If you’re unfamiliar with the plot of The Witches (2020), the story revolves around an eight-year-old boy who is being looked after by his grandma after his mother dies in a car accident that he witnesses. Whilst he tries to recover from this tragedy, he and his grandma soon discover witches in their neighbourhood and relocate to a hotel with the hopes of staying until the witches have moved on. Once they arrive at the hotel however, it becomes clear the witches are congregated there and planning to turn every child into a mouse. The boy and his grandma must find a way to stop the witches before it’s too late, and outmanoeuvre the Grand High Witch.
The Witches first film adaptation was in 1990, directed by Nicolas Roeg, and whilst for me it doesn’t necessarily do the book justice, it’s still a very good film. It stars the beloved Morticia Addams (a.k.a. Anjelica Huston) as the Grand High Witch, and she does a fantastic job of portraying the character. I first discovered it on a discount rack somewhere or other, and asked my mum if we could buy it as I loved the book. The film quickly became one of my favourites, with it’s spooky atmosphere and engaging storytelling.
I was excited to hear there would be a new film adaptation of The Witches, and especially so when I heard Guillermo del Toro would be a producer on it as he’s one of my favourite filmmakers. Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with some of the scathing reviews left by critics, I must admit that the film does fall short in a number of areas.
The first issue is that the remake relies heavily on CGI. I’m happy for animals to be replaced by computer generated imagery, as it negates concern over the welfare of animals who perform in films. However, Zemeckis’s The Witches did a disservice to itself by relying so heavily on CGI for the appearances of the witches. In Roeg’s film, the witches still look terrifying three decades later, and this is most likely due to the use of practical effects which firstly look more realistic, and secondly, age better. The witches in the remake don’t look very scary at all, and come across as more comical which is a real shame because Dahl wrote a detailed description of how scary a witch can be. Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of the Grand High Witch falls very short for me, as she plays the character in a very over-the-top, comedic fashion. When I think of a scary witch, slapstick comedy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. The way the witches’s hands are depicted in the film caused controversy which you can read about here.
Zemeckis’s The Witches is much truer to the book than the 1990 film. The boy remains nameless unlike in the first adaptation, he also remains a mouse for the rest of his life, and the exposition of the car crash remains the same too. The film differs from the text in that it is set in Alabama, USA, and that setting influences many of the film’s details, but that doesn’t detract from the narrative of The Witches. What this results in is a mismatch of ideas, whereby the jovial atmosphere of the film undermines the emotion of the story.
Something I wonder about, is the film’s target audience. Those of us who were fans of the book and film as children, are now adults. Whilst I wouldn’t want to deprive a young audience to the wonderment of Dahl’s stories, the books are still popular today and easily available. I wonder what it would be like if a film was made from a story that had developed and grown with us, what fears and worries it might arise in an adult audience. It would also be a fantastic opportunity to go all out on the scariness factor of the witches and their dastardly plots. The fear of something lurking in your everyday life that looks so familiar but also slightly wrong is probably quite a universal fear, playing into ideas of the uncanny or preternatural.
On the one hand, I am not this film’s target audience. Yet on the other hand, films with a young target audience shouldn’t be of a lesser quality than films targeted at older ones. Whilst the original text is a children’s book and the 1990 screen adaptation is a family film, this remake is very heavy on tropes and it’s completely overt on the progression of the film, leaving very little room for an inquisitive viewer to speculate on what might happen.
I also wish the compilation soundtrack used in the first quarter of the film would have carried on throughout. I could see that the film was trying to be very different stylistically from the text, with its relocation to 1960s Alabama, and the use of music was working really well to create a compelling environment. However, once the film transitions to take place inside The Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel, the jukebox soundtrack is substituted with an unoriginal, children’s film adventure score, underscoring every crash, bang, and wallop. The remake also makes a point to bring up facets of black American history, but neglects to say anything about them.
All this being said, I liked the cinematography of the film, I liked the relationship between the boy and his grandma, and I also liked that the plot stayed truer to the book than the 1990 film. I like the new setting and believe it could have offered a fresh take on a classic tale. It’s not the worst film, but also falls short of being great and it’s all the more frustrating because the separate components are all there, just not utilised to create a more engaging and emotive film. It’s not unenjoyable to watch, just a little disappointing.
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