The Witches premiered on HBO Max on Wednesday, but before we get started I thought it worth it to point out something about the director. The great Robert Zemeckis has helmed films like Flight, Cast Away, all three Back to the Future films, Forrest Gump, Contact, and Romancing the Stone among many others. This is such an impressive list of rewatchable movies that have held up well over time even considering the rather randomness of their nature. And yet this dude has been nominated for exactly two Academy Awards and has won only once (Best Director for Forrest Gump). It feels borderline insane that his award list is unbelievably short.
And sure, his last movie, the ambitious but just overly weird Welcome to Marwen (38% on Rotten Tomatoes) landed as a bit of a dud. But this guy has just the kind of track record you love to see in the movie business. He’s consistently put out broad-base, eminently likable films that rarely delve too far into the controversial (Flight might be something of an outlier in that regard). And he also isn’t afraid to get a little weird when the timing is right. Heck, he did Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol during his motion capture phase during the mid-aughts.
So it feels somewhat fitting that Zemeckis would helm a Roald Dahl adaptation. After all, the latter dreamed up stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and Fantastic Mr. Fox among other ridiculous and sublime works.
The Witches is the latest to come to the screen, directed by Zemeckis and penned by Kenya Barris, the creator of Black-ish with an assist from Guillermo del Toro. So the creative team here is top-notch. What we get is anything but.
Opening with a Chris Rock-narrated monologue about the nature of witches in the world, the movie begins with Charlie Hansen (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) losing his parents in a car crash in 1968 Chicago. He’s taken in by his grandmother Agatha (Octavia Spencer) who works to bring him back from the depths of depression and sadness. She’s moderately successful and things begin to turn around for Charlie. That is, until one day he’s confronted in a grocery store by a nefarious woman who wants to offer him some chocolate.
What we learn from Agatha is that witches are, in fact, real and really dangerous. She’s encountered them at other times in her life and has spent her days learning various healing effects to counterattack their powers. Witches hate children and want nothing more than to turn them into animals, preferably mice in an effort to rid the world of them altogether. It’s a silly premise and begins to make for an even sillier film.
In an effort to avoid the witches, Agatha and Charlie “escape” to a nearby hotel. This is a poor choice because the hotel winds up being the hosting venue for a coven of witches including the Grand High Witch played by Anne Hathaway. It’s there that Charlie and some others are turned into mice themselves and spend the rest of the movie working a way out of their jam, trying to turn back to kids and defeat the group of witches.
It’s a silly story, something right out of Dahl’s mind for sure and somewhere in here, there’s probably a fun movie. But this version isn’t it. There are a number of different problems at play. The first is the general appeal. It’s unclear who this movie is exactly made for. Adults? It’s much too childish and silly. Kids? It’s much too scary with rarely any humor even when they are trying for it. This dreaded in-between becomes tough to reconcile.
There’s no clear sense of what this movie is or what the stakes are. Do witches exist in the world? Apparently. Should we care even a little a bit? Not really. And though The Witches sets us up with a character like Charlie who we can feel something for considering his circumstances, it’s tough to keep it up once he turns into a mouse and basically exits the movie.
The movie becomes a literal cat and mouse game but the stakes never feel all that high. The witches have supreme powers but use them simply to turn kids into mice so they can hit them with mallets. Even the feeblest of minds can see past this flawed premise. And again, even if kids could latch on to the story, some of the visuals with the witches border on terrifying to a younger audience. Hathaway does an admirable job in the role of the Grand High Witch, but it’s almost a performance made for the stage rather than the screen. Her style and look are off-puttingly evil for evil’s sake. The acting is good, but it almost doesn’t fit in with the rest of the surroundings.
The Witches was originally slated for a theatrical release but due to pandemic closings, it made its way to HBO Max. That’s probably a good thing. I find it hard to believe this would have had a successful box office run.
Sure, the cast is loaded and Dahl’s material has worked on screen before. But this one lands flat. Zemeckis does an admirable job of setting up the antagonists and working on the atmosphere. But this movie is a bit of a mess. It sets out to be a kids’ film that appeals to a larger cross-section of viewers with a certain style. They come close but end up missing the mark and by the end, you’re hoping for it to end with no real concern whether the kids stay as mice or not.
And finally, a moderate spoiler alert for those that want to turn away right now. I rarely comment on endings in reviews because they rarely make or break a film in its entirety. But the ending for The Witches is among the weirdest (not in a good way) and tone-deaf I’ve ever seen. I was almost shocked by it and can’t imagine kids feel anything but confused.
As a big Zemeckis fan, I want to forget this movie altogether. Let’s celebrate his career, but we can easily remove this one from the resume.