Director Robert Zemeckis has had one of the most interesting careers in Hollywood. He’s rarely been limited by genre or style, bouncing around from films as varied as Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Contact, Cast Away, The Polar Express, and Flight. Now he’s back with a pivot toward kids’ movies with the season-appropriate The Witches.
Based on the Roald Dahl book (which also had a 1990 adaptation starring Anjelica Huston), the film centers on a boy (Jahzir Bruno) who has lost his parents and gone to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). On vacation at a seaside hotel, they run into a convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway).
The witches’ master plan of turning children into mice via poisoned candy soon ensnarls the boy and Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), another young boy staying at the hotel. With the help of his grandma and pet mouse, the boy tries to find a way to reverse the curse put upon them, and stop the witches' plan before it gets any bigger.
Written by the powerhouse team of Zemeckis, Kenya Barris (Black-ish), and Guillermo del Toro, the film tries to pack a lot of things into its running time. The boy and his grandma have been transported from the location of Europe in the book to 1960s America, and changed from white to Black, a decision that pays both subtle and overt dividends. The presence of del Toro — who also produces alongside another master filmmaker, Alfonso Cuaron — seems to have a definite influence on the creepiness factor of the film, as the man who made Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water knows his way around weird creatures.
And things certainly get disturbing, or at least as much as a PG-rated film can. The design of the Grand High Witch, with her wide, sharp-toothed mouth, single-toed feet, and clawed, stretchy arms, is enough to give anyone nightmares. The turning of the two boys into mice goes quickly from scary to fun, as they turn their predicament into an adventure instead of dwelling on the horror of the situation.
Zemeckis has come a long way from his Polar Express days, as instead of going for any kind of reality with the CGI, he plays into the cartoonish nature of the story. The mice are cute, the witches are ugly in all their forms, and the scenes get increasingly over the top. He never tries to make the slight story anything more than what it is, hitting the high points from the book with the gusto they deserve.
The film is absolutely lousy with gifted actors. Bruno has a short-but-stacked filmography that points toward big things for him in the future. Spencer is always a welcome, warm presence, while Hathaway hams it up relentlessly, which is just what her character requires. Stanley Tucci as the hotel manager and voice turns by Chris Rock and Kristin Chenoweth keep the film entertaining throughout.
The Witches is one of those stories that you could see being retold every 30 years or so, with another filmmaker returning to the classic book to creep out and entertain a new generation of kids. And with lots of talent both on screen and behind the scenes, this version may thrive for years to come.
The Witches is streaming exclusively on HBO Max.