Another day, another “It’s fine, but the original was better” remake.
Adapted from the Roald Dahl book of the same name, writer and director Robert Zemeckis’s The Witches serves as a remake to the 1990 film The Witches from director Nicolas Roeg. The latter has gathered a cult following over time as children of the 80s remember it for Anjelica Huston’s disturbing portrayal of witch hell-bent on murdering children. So it makes a certain kind of sense that 30 years later, a studio would snatch up the opportunity to invite the now-grown fans of the original to share a new version with their own children.
Unfortunately, as these things often go, this update feels like a bland imitation of the original.
The Witches stars Jahzir Bruno as “Boy,” a recently-orphaned child living with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after losing his parents in a tragic car accident. As his grandmother does her best to help Boy cope with life’s hardships, she also introduces him to his its eccentricities: cornbread, witches, lockjaw, what have you. One day after a brief encounter with one of said witches, Grandmother and Boy decide to skip town and lie low at a luxurious resort.
Unfortunately dozens of witches are also at the resort under the guise of attending a conference, convening under the helm of the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway).The Grand High Witch has gathered everyone to introduce a plan to turn all of the country’s children into mice via a potion they’ll sneak into chocolate bars. When Boy accidentally stumbles into their plot, he’s used as one of the very first test cases. With a small group of friends caught in a similar circumstance, Boy must adjust to his new mouse-sized body and do what he can to stop the witches from turning anyone else.
First, for the good news. There are two casting standouts in The Witches. Spencer’s portrayal of the Grandmother is engaging and full of depth, a genuine step up from the kind and frail version we see in the 1990 version. The second is Hathaway’s portrayal as The Grand High Witch. I wouldn’t say her version is an improvement on Huston’s, but to even stand up to the original performance is a feat in of itself, and you can see Hathaway relish the opportunity to go ham in the silly and over the top role. Spencer and Hathaway combined elevate the whole effort from being a total write off.
The charm Spencer and Hathaway lend their parts, however, is undercut mostly due to the animation and direction in The Witches. The first 30-45 minutes play almost beat for beat the same as the 1990 version and are fairly enjoyable. But once the children are no longer children, things take a drastic turn for the boring and rote. Where the 1990 version used puppets and actual mice to tell its story, the 2020 version trades those charming visuals for CG animated animals, which almost always feels like a step down. As we see the computer generated mice run around the hotel and struggle to overcome obstacles, the movie quickly begins to lose steam.
Credit where credit is due: The Witches is still visually horrifying in certain parts, particularly in the way the witches mouths are animated. This remake feels like it’s more aimed at young children than the original, axing out the few more adult jokes (like the hotel manager’s affair with a housekeeper) in favor of more animated action/adventure scenes. But I imagine some young children will struggle to handle the disturbing CG faces of the witches, so it’s a little difficult to figure out exactly what age range is being marketed to here.
The Witches isn’t a Dolittle-level disaster of unnecessary remakes. But it doesn’t have anything new or modern to add to this story, it doesn’t look better, and it’s not better directed. Outside of curiosity for a few choice performances, there’s little to recommend here that you can’t find done better in the original.