The career of Robert Zemeckis has been as zany and messy as any one of his features might suggest it would be. There are the highs of Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Death Becomes Her, and plenty more, while the lows have resulted in works like Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and, perhaps most offensive of all, Forrest Gump.
His visual inventiveness and willingness to play with new digital technology and special effects, even when the result is something that lies deep within the uncanny valley, might make one optimistic for his adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches, coming to HBO Max this week. But, disappointingly, the film doesn't manage to capture any of the childish wonders that come with one of the author's most playfully scary works.
Cowritten by Zemeckis alongside Black-ish's Kenya Barris and horror master Guillermo del Toro, this latest interpretation of The Witches transposes the text from Europe to 1960s America, with a Black family — Jahzir Bruno as the young orphaned protagonist and Octavia Spencer playing his grandmother — at the center of the story. When the two find themselves face to face with a witch, they dash off to a luxury resort, but what they encounter there is much worse: The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is holding a conference at the hotel, is actually a group of witches led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) herself.
As its own stand-alone work, there isn't anything particularly special about Zemeckis' The Witches. It's not only dull and heavily reliant on special effects and lazy humor that wouldn't even make a child crack a smile, but none of the changes to the text offer anything insightful that wasn't already present. Those who expect Barris and Del Toro to take the time to subtly explore race or class in some capacity will be sorely let down. And though the film tries at times to lean into camp, Zemeckis doesn't quite seem to have a grasp on what the tone needs to be.
Hathaway, in a role that finds her doing everything from hissing to cackling to breaking her accent every other line, is as committed as ever and one of the few pleasures The Witches has to offer. Sadly, the writers had no interest in exploring some of the rivalries they introduced between her and the protagonists — particularly a lazily scripted history between Hathaway's and Spencer's characters. Her every action is pure exaggeration, which is fascinating to watch, especially when paired with atrocious effects that split her face open in a snakelike fashion, among other choices.
It's hard not to compare this adaptation to Nicolas Roeg's 1990 take on Dahl's novel, which is bolder in practically every way (except for the happy ending it tacks on to the narrative that clashes with the book's tone and message). There is as much playfulness as there is outright horror in the way Roeg tackles the story, Angelica Huston delivers one of the most memorable performances of her career, and all of Jim Henson's gorgeous creature work is seared into every '90s child's memory.
This is why it's so hard to find anything special or worthwhile to say about Robert Zemeckis' The Witches. Where something as messy as Welcome to Marwen has some ambition and sense of style, however uncomfortably horny it might be, this feels like an anonymous work more than anything.
Considering how few Dahl adaptations have been truly stunning — Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, and the Roeg's Witches — it's a shame that this one ended up falling so flat. One hopes that somewhere down the road, a stop-motion animator like Henry Selick, with all the possibility of embracing the delights and grotesqueries of this story, will get the chance at offering a unique interpretation.
The Witches. With Jahzir Bruno, Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, and Stanley Tucci. Written and directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rated PG. Premieres Friday, October 22, on HBO Max.
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