(THE WITCHES has a limited release in parts of Finland where theaters are currently open. It will arrive on HBO Nordic later this year.)
A limited release
Arriving finally in Finland in a limited capacity due to COVID-19, THE WITCHES is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel, both better and worse for the additions that embellish its whimsical tale.
The film is directed by Robert Zemeckis, a cinematic wizard whose works pioneered incredible technical feats. As such, THE WITCHES is beautiful to look at, even as it loses momentum towards the end.
Set in Alabama in the 1960s, a young boy loses his parents in a tragic car accident. He moves in with his grandmother, played by a feisty Octavia Spencer, to begin life anew. But Grandma has a secret past of her own and a long war between herself and a coven of Witches, who prey on young children at a time when nobody would notice their disappearance.
When the coven targets our hero, Grandma moves the duo to safety at a luxury resort, where her family member guarantees them fortifications to weather the storm. The only problem is that the same resort is the coven’s retreat location, leaving both our hero and Grandma to face off with the demonic forces in one final showdown.
The first half of the film, around forty minutes or so, is easily the best part. Zemeckis daringly transplants the story from pastoral England to a dangerous and racist Alabama, where Jim Crow laws make life a living hell. There’s even a horrific undercurrent suggesting that the children who go missing are left missing, as the witches only target minorities to minimize attention.
It’s an interesting and compelling way of contrasting fantasy with reality, but Zemeckis abandons the thought halfway, leaving it more of a window dressing. As such, the implication leaves a poor taste, as it diminishes the real horrors of racism to something that only fictional figures would commit.
Changes, some significant
The screenplay, credited to Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo Del Toro, has aspects that genuinely improve the original novel. It’s when the film turns more slavish to the source material that it loses momentum.
Similarly, the antics of an otherwise reliable Stanley Tucci feel removed from the rest of the film, as the story takes a steep turn towards slapstick about halfway through. An uneasy air lingers about the piece, and Zemeckis does a lot with a few sideways glances and half-muttered sentences. But if you’re going to take something as iconic as Roald Dalh and imprint new meaning to it, I feel you better go all the way with it.
Most of the heavy lifting on this front is by Spencer, an incredible and expressive actor who can spin truth from the faintest strand. She imbues the part with deep sorrow and a haunted past while displaying great strength in the face of adversity, both real and fantastical. Not that young Jahzir Bruno is bad in his part, which requires the young actor to carry much of the film, but Spencer has the meatiest, most subtle role in the movie.
Then there’s Anne Hathaway, who doesn’t get enough credit even as the celebrated actor she is. A national treasure, she steals much of the film with an over-the-top and scenery-chewing performance, deliciously hamming up a part that is equally humorous and terrifying.
Unlike the Nicolas Roeg version made in 1990, THE WITCHES eschews practical effects for CGI, and while some of the results work brilliantly, I feel much of it is a missed opportunity. For every scene where Hathaway’s arms bend and pop like branches in a storm, there are a dozen weightless and dreary shots that break the immersion. Zemeckis’ direction is not at fault, and he pulls out all the tricks in his bottomless kit, but I do miss the horrifying reality of practical masks and puppetry.
Which isn’t to say that Zemeckis shies away from good scares. Far from it, at times THE WITCHES might even be too intense for younger viewers. But I found myself appreciating the darker tone, especially as Spencer and Bruno provide a strong beating heart at the center of it.
Recommended with reservations
At 106 minutes in length, THE WITCHES could do with a little bit of tightening around the edges. It’s never a boring film, but it does lose a touch of the drive towards the end. A rousing climax and a nicely subversive conclusion save a lot, and some wonderful moments between Hathaway and Spencer leave a mark.
It’s not a classic for all ages, and Zemeckis has undoubtedly been better, but for fans of the book and the director, there are certainly far worse options out there. What a shame most won’t be able to experience it in theaters just now. Here’s hoping the home video version is out soon.