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Non-Review Review: The Witches (2020)

The Witches offers a clumsy American update of the classic Roald Dahl novel.

To be fair, there is something potentially interesting in attempting to update The Witches, both for modern audiences and for American viewers. It’s to the credit of director Robert Zemeckis and co-writers Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro that they at least understand this. The Witches makes a number of alterations to its source material, and at least some of those reflect a genuine and compelling attempt to update the story to fit in a modern and American context.

Any witch way but loose…

At the same time, The Witches is a mess. Part of this is down to the way in which a lot of the appeal of Dahl’s story is lost in translation, as a wry and arch British story gets filtered through the hypersaturated Americana of one of the defining American directors, an even more exaggerated effect of what happened with Steven Spielberg’s work on The B.F.G. However, some of this is more fundamental, as Zemeckis struggles to balance tone and mood across the film, and finds his attentions drawn more to what his interests desire than what the plot demands.

The Witches is a misfire, but an intriguing one. There are hints of a much more compelling movie to found, sifting between its more misjudged moments.

Putting a (ro)dent in his reputation…

The attempt to update The Witches for modern America is interesting, given that so much of the appeal of the original novel (and its earlier cinematic adaptation) comes from the fact that it was anchored in a particular time and place. The original version of The Witches was very British in outlook, set against the backdrop of a dull grey hotel that would have been instantly recognisable to any kid who had grown up in the eighties or even nineties United Kingdom.

More than that, the fears of The Witches spoke to the fears of kids growing up in that context. The Witches is essentially a story about “stranger danger”, the idea that children have that there are countless sinister adults out there just waiting to snatch them up, take them away, and do terrible things to them – even if the exact nature of those terrible things remained a mystery to a child filtering the information through news reports and school talks.

A time for reflection.

The Witches interestingly retains that “stranger danger” fear in a way that feels as much a period piece as the movie’s late sixties setting. This ignores the growing understanding of such abuse and trauma, in particular that it is most likely to originate inside the home rather than outside it. The Witches warns its young audience that even a seemingly “sweet old lady” who innocuously asks “do you like sweets?” could be just waiting to abduct or terrorise any child who “took candy from a stranger.”

This approach worked well in the context of the eighties and nineties, but feels awkward today. That said, there are some shrewd choices from Zemeckis, Barris and del Toro. Mostly, the film pulls away from the none-too-subtle antisemitism of Dahl’s original text, making a number of key changes to avoid presenting the eponymous secret cabal as stand-ins for fearmongering portrayals of Jewish people. Instead, by making a number of key changes, The Witches reframes its “danger-hiding-in-plain-sight” allegory as a metaphor for racism.

Everybody goes through changes in their teens…

The film is not subtle. The action is set against the backdrop of late 1968, a tumultuous year in American politics. It focuses primarily on an African American family in Alabama, and racial politics are never too far from the surface when they check into a fancy hotel. More than that, the witches make a point to refer to their own targets as “rats” (often stressing the term over the more biologically accurate “mice”), evoking various propaganda. At one point, the clicking of the group’s high heels sounds like jackboots, and they stand at a dinner like soldiers lining up.

The Witches is thankfully unsubtle in communicating this point. Explaining how witches operate, the protagonist’s grandmother makes it clear, “Witches only prey on the poor, the overlooked. The kids that they don’t think people are going to care about if they disappear.” There’s an obvious implication about where exactly these witches find their prey, which is not necessarily unreasonable in terms of looking at real-life communities where such violence can often occur unchecked because attention is not always paid.

No more Mr. Mice Guy.

Zemeckis approaches The Witches in a way that he tries to make his own. As one might expect from the director of Forrest Gump, the movie presents a hyperreal vision of the sixties, the saturation turned way up and the colours suggesting memory rather than tangible reality. To be fair, Gary Freeman’s production design is impressive in places, particularly with hotel sets and the costuming by Joanna Johnson. However, both of these elements are ultimately sublimated to Zemeckis’ pet interest in computer-generated imagery.

Zemeckis is more interested in his own passions than the story that he’s telling, and The Witches is far too heavily reliant on computer-generated imagery that is unconvincing at best. Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation was famously the last movie on which Jim Henson worked, and managed to integrate practical effects into its storytelling in a way that felt natural and grounded. The use of computer-generated imagery in The Witches takes fears that should be grounded – racism and child predation – and pushes them into the realm of cartoons.

Very a-peel-ing…

This is most frustrating because a lot of this computer-generated imagery isn’t actually needed – there would be more effective and practical ways to accomplish what the story needs, without pushing the audience out of the story. To pick one small example, an early sequence finds a child transformed into a chicken. However, the chicken itself is computer-generated, and so never feels particularly tangible or real. It stands out, particularly when placed in shots that include real chickens.

This reliance on computer-generated imagery impacts the storytelling in a number of serious ways. In the most significant manner, The Witches tries to make its story about a young boy at a mostly empty hotel seem like an epic adventure, which doesn’t work. The Witches is awkwardly paced, and its plot is structured in such a way that everything in the movie flows in an especially linear manner that relies on a series of contrivances and predetermined associations that try to add a sense of scale and scope to a story that doesn’t need them.

A touchy subject…

The Witches seems almost afraid of intimacy, terrified that audiences might assume that this is just the story of one boy and his grandmother, and so restructures the story to offer a larger sweeping narrative. Characters now know one another from childhood. A story passed down from one generation to the next is no longer a simple warning, but instead a motivational speech to inspire an army into action. It doesn’t really work in the context of a story that feels like it should be so personal – so rooted in the experiences of one particular child.

There are other problems, which are primarily problems of tone. As this emphasis on scale and spectacle suggests, Zemeckis struggles to find the heart of the story. Indeed, The Witches never seems entirely sure when it wants to be achingly earnest and goofily silly, even if Alan Silvestri ‘s cloying score often marks that transition with the subtlety of a falling piano. To pick one example, there is a key moment where a fat child misses the opportunity to ask his parents for much-needed help because he’s stuffing his face or where Stanley Tucci gets bitten in the balls.

Elevating the material…

This tonal problem runs deeper than a few bad jokes. The Witches is, quite frankly, afraid to be scary. The film is worried about potentially upsetting or scarring its younger viewers. It has none of the actual and substantive horror that defined Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation, nor any of the uncomfortable transgressions. In Roeg’s version, it was very clear what happened when a witch stepped on a child; the special effects and the sounds left little room for ambiguity. The Witches seems worried that its younger viewers might be even slightly unsettled by what they witness.

The result is frustrating, something of a wasted opportunity. The film is sadly anything but bewitching.

3 Responses

  1. I saw the movie a few weeks ago and without a doubt I think its original version is better, the witches 2020 was a sad attempt to update the 1990 version, I would never see it again

  2. something to highlight about this new installment is the quality of the special effects that we saw, we could see a great difference between the original version

  3. Although it was a good movie, it did not fill all my speculations comparing it with the original I expected much more from this installment

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