The new adaptation of 1990’s The Witches from Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis, director of Forrest Gump and Cast Away, is an entertaining but confounding ride. The story travels to Alabama in 1968 from its origins in England. It begins with Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno) moving in with his grandma (Octavia Spencer, warm, biting, and lovingly wholesome) following the death of his parents.
With Hero boy traumatized by the accident, Grandma makes it her mission to bring the boy back to life, serving fried chicken, dancing to The Four Tops, and a perfect slice of cornbread. It’s not until Grandma and Hero Boy are shopping at the grocery store that he encounters a strange woman with scars curling upward past her mouth. Her voice threatening to shatter glass. It seems our Hero Boy has encountered a witch. After telling his receptive and understanding Grandma, they packs their suitcases, jump in the car, and head off to a fancy, mega-wealthy, predominately white hotel for protection.
It is then that we are introduced to the Grand High Witch herself, played with internalized and outward chaos by Anne Hathaway, who stamps her way through the hotel foyer, lips glistening and eyes ready to exterminate. The moment she opens her mouth, it is difficult to discern where the hell her accent is from, but that just adds to the fun. Her fluid mannerisms turn searing in a single breath. She is so entertaining in this role that any skepticism I may have had of how she would fill the iconic Anjelica Huston’s shoes was dismantled. Watch as her mouth expands up her cheekbones to see why Guillermo del Toro has a writing credit on this film.
But this is where our plot thins out for the grand set pieces that amazed in the 1990 film version and are now recycled with captivating special effects, but no real throughline for the story that came before.
Robert Zemeckis serves as both writer and director, providing another serviceable rehashing of an existing film. We’ve recently seen him take award-winning documentary films like Man on Wire and Marwencol, add slight adjustments to create a film with A-list actors, and only manage to see low box office returns. His retellings haven’t been drawing in audiences like the $35-$40 million budgets would have you expect. Yet, like Guy Ritchie, Zemeckis is given more work to do in the hopes that he’ll strike gold again soon.
Kenya Barris adds his voice to the adaption, creating a delightful first section of the film before relying on moments from the 1990 version to continue the story. Those familiar with the old version will see Bruno and his family virtually unchanged, dialogue remarkably similar, and scenes regurgitated from the original. Bruno still wants those six chocolate bars, and his mother’s frightful shrieks once again offer laughs, but why retell the same subplots as they already exist but change the stories of the main characters? Amazingly, these three supremely talented writers have not been able to fully reinterpret the story when this could’ve been an opportunity to elevate fresh new voices and add some much-needed light to this adaptation.
Did no one think to call Issa Rae?
Perhaps the staging of the scenes in the Grand Ballroom and later the dining room would’ve diverted further from the original film with a fresher take. Of course, the cinematography by Don Burgess is sharp from the get-go, twisting Hero Boy from a seated position in the backseat of the car to being flipped upside down while screaming for his parents, who lie unconscious off-screen. It’s a sequence that immediately tells you you’re in expert hands. Production designer Gary Freeman has given the film a polished, intricate style. But, for the most part, it all feels safe.
But here we are at a time when classic films are being retold for a new generation. Animations are turning into Live Action and millions of dollars are spent for millions more. This film went into production amid this resurgence, which has seen its triumphs (Lion King – $1.65 billion; Aladdin – $1.05 billion) as well as losses (The Call of the Wild – $107 million; Dr. Dolittle – $245 million). What we see overall is an over-reliance on pre-existing content and a distrust in creatives to showcase new stories and adaptations of books or games that haven’t been explored.
This version of The Witches is pricey. Stick around for the end credits to see the number of artists it took to bring the film to life. creativity and updating an existing film with a low-risk director,