Robert Zemeckis has served up some truly unhinged ‘children’s’ fare in his four-plus decades in Hollywood, from the zany meta-fictional noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), a fearless mash-up of live-action and animation, to the uncanny Yuletide spectacle of The Polar Express (2004), with its many ‘Tom Hanks’ rendered in hauntingly primitive mo-cap.
Both uniquely frightening films, though only one of them was designed as such.
Led by Anne Hathaway as a child-hating arch-villainess, Zemeckis’ adaptation of The Witches, Roald Dahl’s twisted classic from 1983, offers CGI-laden scares that are rather more conventional in nature.
That comes as a disappointment, given the director’s well-established zeal for technological wizardry (witchcraft?). It’s birthed some of his most striking imagery (think Goldie Hawn rising from the pond in Death Becomes Her, water gushing from the gaping hole in her stomach, or the titular high-wire act of The Walk), as well as his most baffling (the “Hot Chocolate” musical number in The Polar Express; the entirety of Welcome to Marwen).
The visual effects he’s used to realise Dahl’s tale of magical cruelty to children and talking mice are tame by comparison, vacillating between unremarkable and unnecessary.
That pretty much sums up the film itself. With a script concocted by Zemeckis together with Guillermo del Toro, long-time purveyor of dark, steampunk-y fantasies, and Black-ish‘s Kenya Barris – a trio that, in its sheer randomness, would seem poised to bear weirder fruits – this Witches tinkers with the mythology of the book to little effect.
Now, for some reason, the ladies of the coven all wear Glasgow smiles (better to let Heath Ledger’s Joker keep his monopoly on that look), and one of Dahl’s minor mousey characters is given a saccharine new backstory.
The most significant alteration, and the most pointed, is the transposition of the action from the seaside town of Bournemouth, England to 1968 Alabama.
Reason being, this setting is better primed for a thick coating of racial allegory. “Witches only prey on the poor,” warns the soul-singing, voodoo-dabbling grandma played by Octavia Spencer. “The kids they think nobody’s gonna make a fuss about if they go missin’.”
That’s why she decides to whisk her grandson (Jahzir Bruno) off to “the swankiest resort in Alabama”: “Ain’t nothin’ but rich white folks at the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel.”
Alas, a good number of those rich white folks turn out to be witches, their tell-tale bald heads concealed by costume shop wigs, and their villainy concealed by garish tea-time attire. (“Trussed-up succubi,” the heavily accented Hathaway purrs.)
They’ve gathered to renew their vows to rid the nation of as many stinking scamps as they can lay their bony, gloved hands on – something that Bruno’s unnamed youngster (credited with the lame appellation “Hero Boy”, recycled from Polar Express) discovers too late to escape their grasp.
Trapped in the hotel ballroom during their secret convention, he becomes an unsuspecting witness to, and then a victim of, the unholy effects of the Grand High Witch’s latest invention, “Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker”.
Here as in the book, first up to be “mouse-ified” is Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick), a spoilt white boy with overbearing parents, lured by the Grand High Witch’s promise of chocolate. That this goes directly against the witchy modus operandi Grandma has just articulated – one of a number of niggling inconsistencies in the film – undermines the socially conscious messaging.
So too the revelation of the claw-like appendages hidden by the witches’ gloves, too closely resembling the congenital disorder ectrodactyly; a misuse of CGI that has been called out by the disabled community for demonising physical difference.
Dahl was never the most politically correct writer (he certainly enjoys mocking overweight boys), but this one’s on Zemeckis and co: the “thin curvy claws” described in the book are specifically in reference to fingernails, “like a cat,” not the digits themselves – something the design team evidently chose to ignore.
I suspect the primary intent was differentiating this film from Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation. His witches had Dahl’s cat claws, while Anjelica Huston, wizened and rotted beyond recognition in six hours worth of prosthetics as the Grand High Witch, wielded elongated, crustaceous fingers.
It’s been some years since the terror of a generation – my own – at the sight of Huston, mask off, claws out, has matured into cultish affection. Roeg’s film is still a scarily good practical effects showcase (thanks to the work of Jim Henson), and the text against which the Zemeckis version must work to justify its existence.
If only Hathaway were even half the witch Huston was.
An actress with big teacher’s-pet energy, she’s entirely miscast as the embodiment of “pure, unvarnished evil”. Perhaps pre-empting such a critique, she’s decided to go big, not so much chewing the scenery as actually hurling it across the room – but she lacks the requisite campy menace, and, more importantly, modulation.
She is made to levitate as she delivers her keynote about squishing children, gliding up and down the aisle, non-stop stroking the air around her, maybe in the hopes that all the rhythmic movement will distract from her inability to carry the monologue.
Huston in her day couldn’t have done too much moving around the ballroom stage even if she’d wanted to, encumbered as she was by prosthetics, but by golly could she hold a room.
Stanley Tucci’s appearance as the obsequious hotel manager, making The Witches two-thirds of a Devil Wears Prada reunion, serves as a reminder that the most devastating of blows can be dealt with a soft-spoken, “That’s all.” Hathaway’s character in the fashion-forward flick knew this; it’s something her flailing queenpin would do well to learn.
The Witches is in cinemas from December 10.