Anne Hathaway is done working for your approval. She went from charming ingenue (The Princess Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada) to indie darling (Rachel Getting Married, Brokeback Mountain) to Academy Award-winner (Les Misérables), all the while being mocked as a try-hard theater kid. A few years back, Hathaway switched gears from winsome leading lady to roles weird and wonderful. In this span, she has given us the Kaiju-centric toxic-masculinity fable Colossal, the daffy fun of Ocean’s 8, and the erotic and mind-snapping joy of Serenity. Now, she is living her witch-bitch fantasy with The Witches.
Based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name, The Witches centers on an unnamed orphan boy (Jahzir Bruno), who is on vacation with his loving Grandma (Octavia Spencer). Their plans of rest and relaxation are chucked off the balcony when he discovers there are witches about! Before he can sound the alarm, the boy and a chubby English kid named Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick) are transformed into mice by this creepy coven. Now, they must not only duck squealing maids, earnest exterminators, and hungry cats, but also topple the witch’s plan of mass mouse-ification.
The kids/mice are cute, and it is their story. However, like Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation, which starred Anjelica Huston in full-on cartoon villain mode, the reason to watch is the witches.
Children of the ’90s relished Roeg’s practical effects, prosthetic makeup, and Jim Henson puppetry that transformed children into vermin and gorgeous women into monstrous crones. Zemeckis shakes things up by leaning heavily on CG for the mice, transformations, and by giving his witches a distinctly fearsome look. Papering over Dahl’s horrendously anti-Semitic intentions, Zemeckis’s witches here don’t have the stereotypical hooked nose. When sniffing out stinky children, their nostrils grow wide, like a cartoon hound on the hunt. Rather than warts, there are slim scars along their cheeks that tease a terrible reveal. Their faces crack in half, like a snake’s, their jowls vicious and truly unnerving!
Playing the Grand High Witch, Hathaway is clearly living for it all. Like Huston before her, she slides into a curve-hugging gown and over-the-top European accent. With a repulsive relish, she strides, scolds, and spell casts. Her voice is a one-woman-band of coos, cackles, pronouncements, and bellows. Casting aside vanity, she throws her whole body into the bit, wriggling on the floor, pitching podiums, and thrusting out her arms so they might become nightmarish CG-stretched extensions that crackle as they crookedly claw at escaping children-mice. Whether she’s hitting Stanley Tucci with a withering line, staring down Spencer with a crooked grin, sweet-talking a serpent, or yowling in fury, she is in unrepentant diva mode. It’s pretty damn great. Such a performance feels a welcomed callback to Zemeckis’s under-appreciated-in-its-time Death Becomes Her, in which Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn iconically played toxic yet glamourous best fiends. Sadly, the rest of The Witches isn’t near as exciting as Hathaway’s performance.
This is not intended as a slight to the rest of the cast. The kids are appropriately charming and earnest. Spencer is warm and charismatic as a grandmother who dances and delivers life advice alongside a heaping serving of cornbread and God-talk. Tucci sinks his teeth hard into the fluttering hotel manager, whose Southern accent is as thick as molasses. And Chris Rock gives his signature exuberance as the story’s narrator, who revels in the revelation, “WITCHES ARE REAL!” Still, they’ve all had roles that have been more satisfying, stranger, and more strangely satisfying.
Director Robert Zemeckis has given audiences such groundbreaking and delightfully deranged movies as Death Becomes Her, Back to the Future, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? So, you’d expect things to get weird here, especially as Dahl’s source material didn’t shy away from the bizarre. Perhaps the expectation of weirdness is why this is so underwhelming? Though Zemeckis gives his witches some freaky new flourishes, their reveals are anticipated. Likewise, viewers may go in knowing the hero boy will become a mouse. Frankly, the transformation with perky purple bubbles of CGI isn’t nearly as harrowing as the quivering human-mouse hybrid that Henson dreamed up! So, this Witches feels underwhelming.
To the credit of its big-name screenwriters (Zemeckis, Guillermo del Toro, and Kenya Barris), The Witches is given a new setting, which offers some distinctive details. Instead of chilly England, this story is set in the American South, beginning in Alabama then moving to a beach on the Gulf Coast. The hero and his grandmother are race-bent from white to Black, and the latter is given marks of being a good witch or a “healer,” who uses herbs to cure what ails. These changes brew fresh life and open up the world of The Witches to include more Black people to get in on the fun (though mostly in minor roles as hotel staff).
There are more major changes both from the original book and Roeg’s version. A new role is created to give the boy’s motley crew a bit more verve (courtesy of Kristin Chenoweth). A bit of revising allows for a ferocious final face-off between the hero and the Grand High Witch. Then comes a resolution that purists will appreciate and parents might side-eye. It’s a wonky journey, but that’s always been true of this story. Still, as The Witches hustles hard to hit the big moments that fans love, it feels like it misses the chance to do something truly daring.
Overall, The Witches is fine. It’s freaky, familiar, and fun-ish. Kids will likey squeal and giggle. For grown-ups, Hathaway alone is worth a look.
The Witches is now on HBO Max.
Header Image Source: HBO Max