Film Review

Robert Zemeckis’s The Witches

Robert Zemeckis is a perfect director to tackle one of Roald Dahl’s books; he’s got an inspired mastery over cutting edge CGI, a talent for dynamic visual storytelling and a genuine sense of the macabre, this willingness to be honest about the darker aspects of real life and include them in a story geared towards children, which is an attribute that he directly shares with Dahl himself. His crack at The Witches is an admirable, mostly successful, visually stunning and opulently stylish bit of devilish fun and although obvious comparison will be made not only to Dahl’s book (which simply cannot be topped) but also to Nicolas Roeg’s brilliant 1990 take on it. Zemeckis definitely takes the more playful route and while still injecting palpable dread and menace into the proceedings, his version isn’t quite the prosthetic soaked nightmare Roeg offered. The setting here is switched up from the UK to Deep South Alabama where a young boy and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) encounter a coven of nasty real life witches holding a convention at a swanky bayou hotel. Anyone who has read the book knows that these witches are all about murdering children in frighteningly inventive ways and are led by the preening, aristocratic and supremely evil Grand High Witch, here played by Anne Hathaway in a performance that has to be seen to be believed. In the book the character is mean enough, in the 90’s version Anjelica Huston gave her a kind of.. ‘dark empress socialite’ vibe but Hathaway just grabs the script in her jaws like a dog and runs off with it. Sporting snowy blonde hair, a jittery Norwegian accent and mandible modifications that would make the vampires in Blade 2 shudder, she devours scenery, steals every scene and annunciates every syllable with the force of a snake sinking its fangs into someone. She truly makes this character hers, it’s the most impressive work I’ve ever seen from her as an actress and is by and far the best thing about the film. Even Stanley Tucci, who is usually the life of the party in any film, stands back in restraint as the hotel’s fussy manager and gives Anne a wide berth for her typhoon of a performance to unfold. The special effects are wondrous creations and I can’t figure out why anyone would bitch about the CGI on display here (it’s always inevitable I suppose) because it looks and feels incredibly tactile and terrifying. Zemeckis takes liberties with the witch anatomy that Dahl never dreamed of but they are righteous departures in style that make sense and add to the mythology nicely. Chris Rock narrates the film vivaciously as an older version of the young boy, and I never thought I’d say it but he has an uncannily perfect way with Dahl’s passages that had me wishing for a ‘The Witches audiobook as read by Chris Rock.’ My only one complaint is that it feels too slight in the latter half and I would have appreciated more of a runtime, but what they do give us really is a treat. Solid, comprehensive storytelling from Zemeckis, audaciously beautiful costume design, a gem of a score from Alan Silvestri and one unbelievable banshee howl encore performance from Hathaway who is truly having a blast.

-Nate Hill

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