Many of Roald Dahl’s stories for children have certain dark and vicious qualities, and “The Witches” is no exception. Although it did not scare me much when I happened to read it around 1993, its twisted sense of humor often tickled me, and I also enjoyed the 1990 film adaptation of Dahl’s work directed by Nicolas Roeg. Yes, Dhal disliked that film for several reasons including the changed finale, but the movie is still true to the overall mood and spirit of Dahl’s work while helped a lot by not only Jim Henson and his crew’s masterful special effects but also Anjelica Huston’s deliciously diabolical performance, and it has surely frightened and delighted numerous young audiences out there during last three decades.
In case of the new feature movie adaptation directed by Robert Zemeckis, it tries to distinguish itself from its predecessor in addition to attempting to be more faithful to Dahl’s work than its predecessor, but the overall result is somehow bland and pedestrian to my disappointment. While it is certainly well-made in terms of technical aspects, most of its main cast members are well-cast on the whole, but the movie feels rather lackadaisical compared to those nastily spirited moments in the 1990 version, and I only came to observe its story and characters without much care or attention even though I got amused a bit from time to time.
One of the most notable things in the Zemeckis’ version is that it moves its main background from Britain to an American Southern region in the late 1960s. This time, the anonymous young hero of the story, who is played by young performer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, is an African American kid who recently happened to lose his parents due to an unfortunate car accident, and the opening part of the movie, which begins with the narration by Chris Rock, shows us how our young hero slowly gets accustomed to living in a house belonging to his grandmother, who is your average no-nonsense African American woman as being played by none other than Octavia Spencer.
It subsequently turns out that our young hero’s grandmother has been a local healer who has lots of knowledge on herbs, potions, and other magical stuffs, and she is quite alarmed when her grandson tells her about one disturbing incident he had while they were at a local store on one day. He was approached by some strange woman at that time, and his grandmother tells him that woman in question is actually a witch. She knows well how determined witches are to eliminate kids by any means necessary, and she still remembers well when her best friend in the past was turned into a chicken shortly after encountering a witch.
Because she is afraid of what may happen to her grandson because of that witch, our young hero’s grandmother decides to take a temporary holiday outside her town. They go to a big, luxurious hotel where they can stay for a while thanks to one of her cousins working there, but, alas, it subsequently turns out that the hotel happens to be where a bunch of witches are going to have a secret meeting under the leadership of Grand High Witch, who is the most powerful and fearsome one in the bunch.
While our young hero is listening to her and other witches from a spot where he happens to hide from them, Grand High Witch, who is broadly played with deliberate heavy accent and brimming gusto by Anne Hathaway, reveals her grand evil plan for eliminating all the kids in the world. She has recently developed a very effective magic potion which can quickly transform kids into mice, and she is planning to distribute it widely among her fellow witches who will gladly use it for accomplishing their ultimate mission.
Unfortunately, our young hero is captured not long after Grand High Witch demonstrates the effectiveness of her magic potion on a chubby kid named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), and he is consequently turned into a mouse just like Bruno was right before him. Once he and Bruno luckily manage to evade Grand High Witch and other witches thanks to an unexpected ally, our young hero tells his grandmother on what is going on, and she is certainly willing to take some risk for helping her grandson and his new little friends stopping Grand High Witch and other witches.
Around that narrative point, we are supposed to care more about our young hero’s increasingly dangerous adventure, but the screenplay by Zemeckis and his co-writers Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro (He also participated in the production of the movie along with his fellow Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón, by the way) often falters in addition to failing to utilize its changed background and characters more. While it merely moves from one expected moment after another without much humor and inspiration, it does not delve that deep into the social/racial status of its young hero and his grandmother, and that is really a shame considering how that aspect could bring some fresh air to what has been so familiar to us.
Moreover, the special effects in the film, which are mostly based on CGI, do not feel that distinctive compared to those marvelous special effects in the 1990 version. They are certainly more technically advanced in comparison to say the least, but they do not have the palpable qualities instantly observed their counterparts in the 1990 version, and the overall impression is just mildly scary instead of memorably frightening.
In conclusion, “The Witches” is not a total dud because of several entertaining elements including Hathaway’s juicy over-the-top performance, but it is deficient in terms of style, mood, and personality compared to the 1990 version. As a matter of fact, I am soon going to revisit that film, and I am ready to be delighted again.