REEL Review – The Witches (2020)

Director: Robert Zemeckis | Runtime: 1h 46mins | Comedy, Adventure

A young boy (Jahzir Bruno) and his Grandmother (Octavia Spencer) go and stay at a posh hotel in Alabama to get away from the Witches who prey on poor children. However, as they arrive they realise that the hotel is hosting a conference for the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway).

In 1990 Nicholas Roeg adapted Roald Dahl’s story for the big screen and despite that camp-creepiness that’s hard to come by nowadays, it’s certainly a product of the 90s. So a new take – one that stars Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer – could have been a refreshing change to the iconic source material. In fact, it’s a project that includes a Del Toro screenplay as well as Hollywood behemoth Robert Zemeckis in the director’s chair – so it’s a crippling disappoint to say that this is the worst film of 2020 so far.

When you think Del Toro you think no holds barred fantasy, both gothic and fantastical while being completely grounded in our reality. When you think Zemeckis you think a master director who’s name has been attached to some of the very best popcorn entertainment ever to grace our screens. But The Witches feels like the culmination of everything going wrong; it has a weak story that is neither fantastical or creepy, it’s performances are both overzealous and underperformed and it’s direction, while having it’s moments, is a miscalculation of the film’s own tone and balance.

The film starts with a Chris Rock voiceover (reminiscent of Everybody Hates Chris [2005-2009]) as he lectures children on the reality of Witches, flashing back to his childhood in 1960’s Alabama when he’s struck with the tragedy of his parents death. A pretty morbid start that leads to even more exposition by his Grandma (played by Octavia Spencer), in which she describes the physical appearance of Witches, and the story of her childhood friend who was offered a sweet and turned into a chicken. All of this feels like a long slog to get to the thick of it and by the time we are there you become far too exhausted to invest yourself in the meat of the story.

Here in lies the problem with the whole film, it misunderstands it’s own tone of family-friendly with the imbedded potential of genuine fear.

One thing the film should get applauded for is changing the subplots and setting, being set in rural Alabama during the height of civil right tensions adds a little extra knowledge to a story aimed at children. The only problem is that there is never really any exploration, that idea of elegant well-dressed (predominantly white) ‘Witches’ stripping the lives of poor children of any potential is lost in order to make room for nonsensical hijinx and fantasy driven action involving mice and heavily CGI’d feet and fingers.

Once at the hotel we are introduced to the almighty Grand High Witch. A character that’s probably the closest to finding that camp-creepiness thanks to Anne Hathaway. She plays it with extravagance and a very vague Eastern-European accent, but the problem is she isn’t nearly as scary as the CGI is making her. Here in lies the problem with the whole film, it misunderstands it’s own tone of family-friendly with the imbedded potential of genuine fear. Sure, Hathaway’s performance and the catchy soundtrack entice the infantile audience but it’s dragging story will wear them out quicker than anything. As for the genuine fear, other than the extra teeth and weird toes there’s nothing that’s going to make you shriek.

I’m still a believer in Zemeckis, and Del Toro’s script is just a product of a film he once wanted to make, but the truth is The Witches is no more than a conflicting heap of tones with no real depth in it’s subplots. The humour is weak, and if you really want a film that going to get your kids into the spirit of Halloween, may I suggest anything other than this.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

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