The Witches raises a number of questions, primarily Why?
Why has Anne Hathaway, as the head witch here, been allowed to affect a braying Zsa-Zsa-Lugosi Hungarian accent that might have been designed to trigger tension headaches in anyone exposed to it?
Why was it felt wise to digitally accessorize Hathaway with a huge stretchy mouth filled with huge razory teeth, as though she were auditioning for an all-female Venom spinoff?
Why does this whole movie, from the singing-dancing rodents to the madly tumbling witches, look as if it had been marinated in pricey CGI? It’s not that the digital animation isn’t good – it’s top-shelf, with characters capering through chase scenes and interacting with their environments in highly complex ways. Great stuff. Also, after a short while, kinda boring.
The tech overload here is no surprise, actually. The director, Robert Zemeckis, has made a number of very popular (and some very good) films over the years—Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Used Cars. But he was also an early fan of computer-generated imagery and has created such Uncanny Valley classics as Polar Express and Beowulf. Anyone who’s sat dozing through those two films might want to sit out this one.
The Witches is the second big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 fantasy novel. (The first, still warmly regarded, was directed by Nicolas Roeg and starred Anjelica Huston.) The story remains pretty much the same. A young orphan (Jahxir Bruno) —nameless in the book but dubbed “Hero Boy” in the movie’s credits—is living with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) at her home in rural Alabama. Grandma, we learn—at a somewhat mopey pace—was once a witch hunter, and so knows what’s happening when spooky crone sightings begin to crop up. To protect her grandson, she takes him to a fancy seaside resort. But it turns out that a coven of witches has also booked rooms there, styling themselves the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. (Witches are great kidders.) The group’s maximum leader, the Grand High Witch (Hathaway), has come up with a nasty new plan for the human race: It involves a “mouse maker” potion, of which the GHW has brought along a copious supply. She wants her minions to return to their various hometowns and start opening candy stores. Then she wants them to lace their candy with the “mouse maker” concoction. After the kids transform into rodents, their own parents might unwittingly kill them.
As a longtime Anne Hathaway fan, it pains me to ask how much better this movie might have been without her in it. Her over-the-top sashaying will surely send some viewers rearing back in alarm, while others might be put off by the telltale witchy signs with which her character has been adorned – the scabby scalp rash (from the wigs she must wear—witches are bald), the three-fingered hands, the single-taloned feet. Hathaway puts a lot of effort into this un-charming character—not a moment passes in which she’s not killin’ it—but it’s tiresome.
On the plus side, there’s deluxe production design by Gary Freeman that makes you want to slip onto the cozy sets and take a restorative nap. There’s also the great Stanley Tucci, reuniting with Hathaway for the first time since The Devil Wears Prada. Tucci can improve a movie just by walking through a scene; here, unfortunately, playing the hotel manager, Mr. Stringer, he’s mainly called upon to dither.
The dialogue is fine, for the most part, with the exception of a few potted homilies like “Never give up what you are inside”—the sort of soft-focus thinkery that cries out for a punchline.