Last weekend, HBO Max premiered The Witches, a film based on the beloved 1983 novel by Roald Dahl, starring Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, and Octavia Spencer. This adaptation had a lot to live up to, not only to its source material, but against the 1990 film version. But sadly, I found that this film couldn’t hold a witchy candle to either; failing to improve upon anything and giving us a diluted version.
Before we dive into the things that are wrong, I will say that I think children will like the film. After all, that’s its target audience right? Though, I’m not sure that redeems anything for the grown ups in the room. If they were attempting to please the generations that grew up with the book or 90s flick, they didn’t. It’s a rather boring attempt, which is sad because it was first in the hands of Guillermo del Toro. Had he been given the project fully, we would have undoubtedly been gifted a glorious adaptation. But let’s talk about what went wrong with the final product and why it is easily forgettable.
The Overuse of CGI
When the initial trailer dropped, I was unimpressed by the amount of obvious CGI. If you’ve seen the original film, you know that the incredible effects are partly the reason it is so beloved – it is iconic. Jim Henson was a pioneer in the industry and his team at Creature Shop were behind the films impressive designs. So why would you not try to uphold that same quality, or improve upon it?
Half our nightmares as children were because of those transformation sequences, where the effects were so jaw-dropping they were seared into our minds. For this film, everything is CGI. Even the Grand High Witch gets a Pennywise-inspired mouth, at the hands of a computer. Not a single practical effect in sight aside for a few minimal prosthetics. It’s a missed opportunity to support SFX artists and pay respect to Henson’s legacy.
It Wasn’t Scary
Riding off the previous issue, the film overall is not creepy enough when you consider its antagonists are witches trying to murder children. It could be compared to Tim Burton‘s adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where again, it lost the quirky frights that freaked us out as children; like the toned down boat sequence for example. In this film, we lose those weird moments as well – whether it be due to CGI or just the overall story being bland.
Poor Storytelling For Grandma
In the first film, Grandmother tells the sad story of a girl she once knew, who was trapped inside of a painting by a witch. This was how she reveals she’s known about witches all along. For this version, the story is slightly more comical – of Grandma’s (Octavia Spencer) best friend being turned into a chicken. So tell me why we see Grandma serve up a giant plate of fried chicken later? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to have Grandma have an aversion to chicken, maybe be a vegetarian when it wasn’t popular at that time, and have it revealed later that she was because of what she had witnessed? That reveal would have been such a narrative treat.
As the film progresses, I found myself being even more confused by the character. I could simply be nitpicking, but I found her comedic relief to feel disjointed, when you consider we’re introduced to her as being more stern in nature. She is also a God-fearing woman, which this movie will beat you to death with religious undertones; one of my other issues. But then they show that she’s a bit into medicinal witchcraft herself. However, she can’t even do anything with it. It was totally unnecessary, like maybe they originally planned more with it, but wrote it out in the end.
Anne Hathaway & Our Grand High Witch
Anne Hathaway had really big flat-toed shoes to fill as the Grand High Witch, when she took on this role, made famous by Anjelica Huston. It is hard to overlook the glaringly bad impression Hathaway attempts, as she maintains a difficult European accent throughout. For Huston, it’s fun, for Hathaway, it’s laughable. She is extremely difficult to understand, and while they attempt to poke fun at it, you shouldn’t also need subtitles on to get her dialogue.
And like I briefly mentioned before, her character design is not at all interesting like it was in the 90s film. The fact that her “witch face” is just a Pennywise-copied mouth, CGI’d claws and a chicken toe, is so utterly disappointing and – boring.
Other Problems: That Ending, Miscast Characters & Fat Jokes
I have a lot of issues with this film, including its ending. I’d rather not dive into it completely, because I’m not a fan of spoilers, but I was definitely unimpressed by it being a bit unpolished in its ending. It’s not as dark as its source material, but it is less satisfying than the 90s film version.
And let’s talk about our two mice pals. At the beginning of the film, our main character is gifted a mouse who he names Daisy. It might be a tiny spoiler, but Daisy is revealed to be a kid, turned into a mouse by a witch. She’s voiced by Kristin Chenoweth, and while voice actors do not have to be the same age as their characters, Chenoweth’s is just so obviously not a child; especially when you hear her in conversation with the other two kids.
But the other, more upsetting part is the endless fat jokes subjected to our other mouse. We get it, he’s a chubby kid, but how many fat jokes do you have to make at his expense throughout the film? He wants all the food and he can’t fit through things, it’s all so hilarious, right? At a point, let’s stop with this tired caricature.
It’s disappointing that so much amazing talent was wasted on a poor adaptation. We would have been better off with the stop-motion idea that Del Toro originally wanted, or something that brought new life into the story. Something that maybe wasn’t somewhat similar to the 1990 film, so you could avoid comparisons. Like I said before though, your kids will enjoy this – so maybe that’s enough.
To leave on a high note, I will say that Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, who plays our main character, is fantastic. I absolutely adored him and I think he has great charisma on screen. Hopefully this film can serve as a catalyst for his career, because he is so talented and I can’t wait to see what he does next.