Witch Kitsch: Zemeckis Dons Dahl in Revamp of Stylish Cult Classic
Thirty years ago, Nicolas Roeg, one of cinema’s most innovative cinematographer-turned-auteurs, adapted the 1983 Roald Dahl dark fantasy children’s novel The Witches into a film which scared a generation of children thanks to a fantastic performance from Anjelica Huston. While Roeg’s version featured a stellar Euro-based supporting cast (Brenda Blethyn, Jane Horrocks, Rowan Atkinson, etc.) and an inventive mixture of practical effects, one can see why a big-budget contemporary remake might appeal to someone, somewhere.
Although surprisingly much more adept and enthusiastically conjoined to the source material in ways more successful than, say, Tim Burton’s 2005 remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the special-effects obsessed Robert Zemeckis provides a workman-like offering of material which demands someone a bit more bizarre, at least if we’re meant to experience the same culture throb formatted by the trifecta of Dahl/Roeg/Huston. Often, this latest version is enjoyable on its own merits, but will leave fans of the novel and earlier film hungry for something with more of a bite.
In 1968 Demopolis, Alabama, a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) loses both his parents instantaneously in a car accident. Carted off to live with his kind but no-nonsense grandmother (Octavia Spencer), his newfound comfort is destroyed when a strange, gloved woman approaches him one day in a convenience store. Her demeanor is unsettling enough for him to tell grandma, who by his description announces the woman was a witch, and her experiences with these creatures dictates they must abscond from their home to avoid her grandson being turned into an animal (since the witches hate children and it is their aim to destroy any they can lay their hands on). With a relative working as a chef in a nearby swank hotel frequented by white people (the witches have a tendency to prey on the children of poor folks, who aren’t missed or sought after by authorities), his grandmother believes they eluded danger. However, the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) just so happens to have orchestrated a national convention to gather her wide-ranging coven to share funds and blueprints for a worldwide onslaught to eradicate all children.
The delectable pairing of Guillermo Del Toro (who produces with Alfonso Cuaron) and Kenya Barris alongside Zemeckis as screenwriter is reflected in certain sentiments and attitudes, delivering juxtapositions which work quite well with this treatment, relocated to 1968 Alabama. In fact, Octavia Spencer (replacing Sweden’s Mai Zetterling) walks away as the film’s sweet spot, every sequence and line delivery a perfectly primed sentiment of pathos as poignant as it is entertaining. As her counter, Anne Hathaway throws herself into a blonde bombshell version of the Grand High Witch, an opposition to the imperious violet-eyed Russian monster embodied by Huston. And Hathaway, while always seeming a bit too young, too doe-eyed, and too overzealous, does entertain, especially when the role demands her to depend on physicality, stomping around like a one-toed ostrich. But when the script calls on her to engage in any lengthy diatribes, The Witches reveals its weakness in her casting. A vague Euro-centric accent which belongs to the Angelina Jolie school of dialects could be Zsa Zsa Gabor or Melania Trump.
Newcomer Jahzir Bruno is winning as the young lead, while Zemeckis keeps the chubby young cohort Bruno as a British import in Codie-Lei Eastick (which more or less avoids the trenchant racism of what a white American child in 1968 Alabama would likely exhibit), and some fun voicework from Chris Rock (which fares better than the services of Kristen Chenowith as the mouse, Daisy/Mary) adds some extra flair. But there’s something lacking from this new spell, and the blame can’t be laid on Hathaway, who gives it her all and is assisted significantly by special effects work with a jagged Joker smile and some tonal voice changes. Likewise, Stanley Tucci (who memorably co-starred alongside Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, 2006) as the hotel manager previously played by Atkinson, feels underutilized.
Zemeckis, who brings along his usual crew, including DP Don Burgess and composer Alan Silvestri, just isn’t weird enough to navigate the strange magic Dahl evokes, even though this material would have suggested a return to the territory of his celebrated camp cult classic Death Becomes Her (1992). But, on the bright side, this is far from a ruinous presentation and will likely renew interest in Dahl and Roeg. One wonders what the stop motion version Del Toro originally wanted would have looked like, but at least there’s a vibrancy here which eluded the last Roald Dahl mounting in Spielberg’s The BFG (2016).