Review: The Witches (2020)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Spooky season might be behinddd us, but that does not mean you cannot still give The Witches (2020) a whirl. Admittedly, the film’s £15.99 rental price felt like a well-timed Halloween trick, with its 26th October UK release date, but to my relief, the adaptation did go down a treat.

As both a new big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s classic The Witches, and a remake of Nicolas Roeg’s iconic original 1990 film adaptation of the same name, I could not help but approach Robert Zemeckis’ reimagination with cautious excitement. After all, it had grand high heels to fill. Since its first release, The Witches (1990), starring A-lister Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, has bewitched me and countless other little “brats” all over the world. Firmly remaining one of my childhood, and all-time, favourites, it was impossible for me not to compare the new adaptation with its cult classic predecessor.

Image Source: Still via Warner Bros. // YouTube. Director: Robert Zemeckis

Some striking changes define this remake: one is the diverse casting of our heroic grandmother-grandson duo, and the reworking of their surroundings. Set in the late 1960s, The Witches sees the unnamed, orphaned, and grieving protagonist-hero (Jahzir Bruno) go to live with his charming grandmother (Octavia Spencer), but when they realise a dangerous witchy presence in their hometown of Demopolis, Alabama, they shortly escape to the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel near the Gulf of Mexico. Arriving at what they think is a safe haven, the pair ironically end up staying at the same hotel as a whole coven of witches, who are congregating, hilariously, under the collective guise of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I found this re-imagination of both the novel and original film’s English-Norwegian setting to the United States South very clever — I interpret a subtle nod to the south’s, especially Louisiana’s, history of witchcraft and voodoo, especially with that spectacular glimpse into Grandma’s hidden healing cupboard.

Image Source: Still via Warner Bros. // YouTube. Director: Robert Zemeckis

Aside from her questionable accent, Anne Hathaway certainly brings the energy and attitude necessary to the all-important Grand High Witch role, but I found her performance over-egged, even panto-esque. In fact, this critique applies to the new adaptation as a whole; it favours shouting and exaggeration over meaning and integrity, failing to make it compelling. Hathaway as the Grand High Witch made me giggle and recoil as this villain should, but mainly due to CGI, unlike Huston’s impressive acting which makes her 1990 Grand High Witch equally chilling in human, as well as witch form. That said, Zemeckis assigns the Grand High Witch additional new powers which makes her one powerful witch, indeed. I was wowed by her levitation ability and found myself wincing at her nightmarish cheshire-cat grin and terrifying Slender-Man-meets-Mrs-Incredible arm action (just you wait).

Image Source: Still via Warner Bros. // YouTube. Director: Robert Zemeckis

The Witches adaptation nonetheless proves that no matter how cool CGI may be, it cannot completely make a film; it is inferior and lacklustre compared to its magical and memorable 1990 counterpart. The ahead-of-its-time artistry of Roeg’s The Witches (1990) consisted of well-deployed special effects, some astounding prosthetic make-up, like that featured in that shocking unveiling scene, and the talent of master puppeteer Jim Henson — all of which assisted in making it the timeless cult classic that it remains today.

Image Source: Still via Warner Bros. // YouTube. Director: Robert Zemeckis

Since viewing The Witches (2020), I have read various insightful pieces, such as this BBC article, citing criticism of the film’s decision to adapt Dahl’s description of the witches’ “thin curvy claws” into three-fingered hands on-screen. This insensitively ties upper limb impairment with damaging connotations of evil and ugliness in the film. The #NotAWitch hashtag gives agency to charities and individuals with disabilities, particularly people with upper limb impairments like ectrodactyly, who are upset with Warner Bros.’ problematic, stigma-reinforcing decision. Whilst the film has a diverse cast, it has evidently let down people with limb differences; if only the studio had taken more time and consideration to consult relevant experts over their “new interpretation”. It seems that cinema still has a long way to go in achieving positive representation.

I would recommend Zemeckis’s The Witches adaptation as a fun watch, but I think it is perhaps too laughable. Apart from its didacticism, like its advice to “never take candy from a stranger”, or face being zapped into a chicken, or a surprisingly diligent mouse-hero, it fails to leave a real lasting impression. Comparatively, even the sub-narrative of poor cursed Erica in the ‘90s film still haunts me — the little girl who gradually ages inside a painting in her childhood home, before finally vanishing for good. With all that said, I will stop “lollygagging” now; you’ll find me re-watching The Witches, but it will be the truly chilling and magical original adaptation.

— Sophie Selvey

The Witches (2020) is available to rent now via several streaming platforms, including Sky Store, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video, and Google Play Store, at a price of £15.99.

Featured Image Source: Still via Warner Bros. // YouTube. Director: Robert Zemeckis

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