There’s one scene in the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches that no young viewer could ever forget. It’s the moment when the boy hero, spying from his hiding place within a swanky seaside hotel, catches his first glimpse of the movie’s titular villains in their true form, as they rip off the wigs pulled tightly over their hairless heads and their leader, played by Anjelica Huston, sheds her own disguise to reveal the Jim Henson monstrosity lurking underneath. Dahl is said to have hated the 1990 film, as he did most of those made from his gleefully macabre kid bestsellers. Yet director Nicolas Roeg, whose prior work was decidedly not family friendly, actually came pretty close to capturing the appeal of Dahl’s writing: the feeling of stealing a private glimpse into a secret world that exists behind the curtain of the normal one. To watch The Witches was to be like its eavesdropping protagonist, peeping into the excitement of seeing something you weren’t supposed to. That centerpiece sequence, pulled straight from Dahl’s illustrated pages, is restaged by Robert Zemeckis, veteran wizard of special-effects spectacle, in his new adaptation of The Witches. This time, the Grand High Witch is played by an unwieldy Anne Hathaway, who removes her perfectly arranged blonde bouffant and emerges, before an audience of fellow bald crones, as a gnashing digital harpy with three-talon claws and a face-cracking grin. But though she looks creepy enough, the scene itself feels curiously detached somehow, even as it plays out the same way, with dark schemes and scared boys shrinking into rodents. It’s lost the queasy voyeuristic charge that bubbled from within the material.
Where is the Zemeckis who engraved a cartoon-noir Christopher Lloyd into countless children’s (including myself) nightmares? That same director has thrown a softening, coddling filter over Dahl, preserving the shape of his source material while wearing down its edges. The plot still revolves around a newly orphaned grade-schooler (Jahzir Bruno) getting a crash course in the wicked ways, though he’s now an American kid in 1967 Alabama, which allows Zemeckis to pack the soundtrack with Motown hits. Grandma (Octavia Spencer) tells him of stories of real witches hiding in plain sight and how hate children, and how you can identify them. One is reminded of why Dahl can be tricky to adapt by even those with the seemingly right sensibility: His books often are robust in an encyclopedia-like nature, forcing filmmakers to stuff pertinent exposition into the mouths of actors. In this case, that burden falls partially on Chris Rock, who narrates the film as the older version of our protagonist in the film’s framing device.
While Dahl understood that his young readers craved a little danger, Zemeckis never seems sure of how scary he can really make the witches. Hathaway, for all the stretching of her limbs, mostly keeps her tongue planted firmly in cheek, even when it’s flailing around with her distended, toothy jaw. The action eventually shifts to a towering, glamorous resort, where the boy and his grandmother check in to lose a local sorceress, but to their misfortune, their stay happens to coincide with a weekend conference organized by Hathaway’s witch CEO and attended by the entire American coven. Roeg’s film had a lot of farcical fun with the havoc loose mice and supernatural mischief might wreak on a snooty, upscale establishment. Though he suitably trades Rowan Atkinson for Stanley Tucci as the pestering manager, Zemeckis glosses right over that element.
Despite a screenplay cowritten by Guillermo del Toro (a filmmaker who’s made a whole career out of putting fictional children at risk), The Witches is basically Dahl with sprinkles of Forrest Gump, with all the folksy narration, boomer nostalgia, and expensive technological touches. Like his old pal Steven Spielberg, who sapped up another Dahl novel, The BFG, a few years ago, Zemeckis may be too sentimental for this author and his mean streak. He follows Spielberg’s lead further in treating the work like a springboard for tech exercises — an opportunity to play with scale, as the boy and a fellow unlucky brat (Codie-Lei Eastick) get used to their furry new form, scampering around the hotel, narrowly avoiding the falling feet of the other guests. It’s tempting just to be grateful that Zemeckis hasn’t fully retreated back into the motion-capture animation he blew a whole decade dabbling in. But if you can take the filmmaker out of the uncanny valley, maybe you can’t take the uncanny valley out of the filmmaker. I say that because nothing in this movie looks real (or visually striking or appealing): not the mice, not the clothing, not the hotel. Even the cat, which doesn’t do much but hiss, is a (unconvincing) digital creation. Sure, Zemeckis has made some unsuccessful films over the last twenty years, but The Witches is so frustrating because it feels directed by somebody else.
Zemeckis came of the artistic age in the Amblin heyday, when blockbusters pushed the boundaries of all-ages entertainment so far that the PG-13 rating had to be invented. (This was, perhaps not by coincidence, the same era when The Witches was first published.) One might identify Roeg’s version as a last hurrah for that kind of studio-sanctioned terrorizing of children in the guise of fun for the whole family. Have kids gotten softer or does Hollywood just assume they have? This movie is as much an imposter as its titular attractions; what it’s pretending to be is a story that wasn’t afraid to spook the readers who loved it. Dahl called the last adaptation of The Witches “appalling.” Imagine what he might have said about the one that features cute CGI mice dancing to “We Are Family.” With all its edges nearly entirely sanded down, The Witches is a thin brew of profoundly uninspired and bland ingredients that taste of a savorless plastic and have the lingering quality of water vapor.
The Witches is available to stream on HBO Max