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Josh Reviews Robert Zemeckis’ Adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches

Robert Zemeckis’ new film adaptation of The Witches is now available on HBO Max.  The pedigree of this film had me immediately excited.  Robert Zemeckis is, of course, the director of some of my favorite films (the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Contact).  I adore Roald Dahl’s original novel.  The film’s screenplay was written by Mr. Zemeckis, Kenya Barris (mastermind behind Black-ish), and Guillermo del Toro (a master of horror who is one of my favorite directors working today, responsible for such great films as Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water).  On the other hand, Mr. Zemeckis’ films haven’t connected with me in recent years; I haven’t really enjoyed his new movies since the one-two 2000 punch of What Lies Beneath and Cast Away.  What would I think of The Witches?

I liked it!  The film is a fun, all-ages tale.  It’s very competently made, with lovely visual effects and very likable characters to guide us through the tale.

Is The Witches a masterpiece?  No.  It doesn’t have the pop of startling originality that most of Guillermo del Toro’s films possess.  The adult aspects of most of Mr. del Toro’s work have been rounded off (the violence, the scares) — but how could they not have been?  This is an adaptation of a kids’ story!  So I’m not saying that’s the wrong choice.  But the film doesn’t grab me as viscerally as most of Mr. del Toro’s work does.  Nor is there anything in the film nearly as memorable as what can be found in Robert Zemeckis’ best films from the eighties and nineties (such as the movies I listed in the first paragraph, above).  So one should enter into The Witches with measured expectations.  That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed watching the film.  It’s easily Mr. Zemeckis’ best film in almost two decades.

The cast is terrific.  I love the choice to center the story on an African-American family.  Octavia Spencer (The Help, Hidden Figures, The Shape of Water) is spectacular as Grandma.  (Whereas in Roald Dahl’s novel Grandma was from Norway, here she is from Alabama.  The change works very well.)  Ms. Spencer’s charisma and her comedic chops make her the perfect fit for this tough, smart, maternal figure.  I loved watching her.  Young Jahzir Kadeem Bruno is great as Grandma’s grandson, the boy (whose name is never given in the book, nor the movie!) who finds himself on this adventure with the witches.  And I was delighted that Chris Rock voiced an older version of the boy!  I was not expecting Chris Rock’s voice to be the first voice I’d hear in this adaptation of The Witches!  That was such a fun choice.  Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs, Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises) is a scenery-chewing hoot as the Grand High Witch.  She completely throws herself into this crazy character, and she goes all-in in the bizarre accent the character had in the book.  I might have preferred had this character been a little scarier and a little less silly, but that’s a minor quibble.  It’s a heck of a performance, and a lot of fun to watch.  Also fun to watch: Stanley Tucci as the prickly, stick-up hotel manager Mr. Stringer.  Mr. Tucci is perfect as this character!!  His very dry comic performance is so funny.  Kristin Chenoweth is great as the voice of the mouse Daisy, and Codie-Lei Eastick is strong as the young boy Bruno Jenkins who runs afoul of the witches right before the main boy does as well.

The film is described in its promotional materials as a “reimagining” of Roald Dahl’s novel, so I was (pleasantly) surprised by how faithful the film wound up being to the book.  Almost all of the main story points are there, and so many of the novel’s most memorable scenes and moments have been wonderfully translated to film.  I was also happy to see how many of Mr. Dahl’s unusual twists and turns were preserved in the film!  Mr. Dahl’s stories almost always unfolded in a manner quite different from the average children’s tale; that’s part of the magic of his books.  I wouldn’t be shocked if a Hollywood adaptation wanted to remove some of those unusual choices in their film adaptation, to give it a more familiar structure.  I was pleased that Mr. Zemeckis’ film didn’t do that!  I was particularly happy that certain aspects of the book’s ending — SPOILERS AHEAD here for an almost forty-year-old novel — were kept for the film, most notably the boy’s never being returned back to human form, and also the acknowledgement that, as a mouse, he now probably had less than a decade left to live.  Wowsers!  I’d thought for sure those things would be changed.  (I fact, I believe they were changed in the previous film adaptation of The Witches, the 1990 film starring Anjelica Houston.)  Bravo to Mr. Zemeckis & co. for holding onto those elements of Mr. Dahl’s story.

The biggest change from the book was transplanting the story to Alabama.  I thought that was brilliant.  The next biggest change was also great: the inclusion of a third child who had been turned into a mouse: Daisy (whose real name we later learn is Mary), voiced by Kristin Chenoweth.  It was a smart addition to add another major female character to the tale, and I really liked the dynamic we got to see between the three transformed children (the boy, Daisy/Mary, and Bruno).

The visual effects in the film are strong.  I liked the work they did on the large, teeth-filled mouths of the witches.  I laughed at the great effect of the Grand High Witch’s enlarged nose when she’s sniffing around in the ballroom for the boy.  But it’s in the children-turned-mice where the visual effects truly shine.  The mice are beautifully brought to life.  I never for one second doubted that these CGI creations were completely real and present with the other actors in the scene.  Each mouse had a particular identity, and the mice-kids did some great acting in certain key moments.  It’s incredibly impressive work!!

I also really enjoyed the film’s production design, including its beautiful sets and costumes.  The film strikes a delicate balance between feeling like it takes place in the real world, while also containing so many of Roald Dahl’s particular touches of fantastical weirdness.

So while The Witches might not be a home run, it’s a very enjoyable solid double!  I’m glad to have seen it.  If you love Roald Dahl’s book, as I do, it’s definitely worth a look.

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