THE WITCHES movie poster |©2020 Warner Bros.

THE WITCHES movie poster |©2020 Warner Bros.

Rating: PG
Stars: Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth (voice), Codie-Lei Eastick, Chris Rock (voice)
Writers: Robert Zemeckis & Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by Roald Dahl
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Release Date: October 22, 2020

THE WITCHES, now on HBO Max, is what is sometimes known as a “family film.” This is not in the literal sense, as in actually being suitable for family members of all ages. Rather, it’s made for children, with parents, older siblings and other folks seeing the possibilities and wishing it was better.

Based on Roald Dahl’s 1983 book and the 1990 film, directed by Nicolas Roeg (of all people) and scripted by Allan Scott, this version of THE WITCHES is directed by Robert Zemeckis, who collaborated on the screenplay with Kenya Barris; Guillermo del Toro shares script credit. Zemeckis has shown that he’s a whiz at integrating live action and visual effects; he achieves some photo-realistic results here, but there are also some surprisingly inconsistent elements.

We begin with an offscreen narrator (Chris Rock) with a slide show talking to an audience of children. He’s here to warn about witches, and the fact that “witches hate kids.”

We are then taken back to December of 1968, and realize the narrator is telling his own story. As an eight-year-old child (Jahzir Bruno), who is never called by name, our previously happy protagonist is in a car accident that kills both of his parents. He is taken in by his maternal grandmother (Octavia Spencer), who lives in a small town in Alabama.

Grandma, a healer herself, does what she can to bring the child out of his grief. She gets him a pet white mouse, which he names Daisy, and also tells him about witches. They’re not really women, but rather demons who wear wigs, hats, and turbans to disguise their bald heads, long gloves to hide their claws, and they’ve got weird feet (but subject themselves to high heels anyway).

At this point, one may wonder if THE WITCHES is actually trying to make kids afraid of women chemo patients, women with shaved heads, and/or women who gather in groups. Well, yeah, but that’s not really the problem here.

Fearing that she and her grandson are being targeted by a witch, Grandma uses a friendly relationship to get them a suite at “the fanciest hotel in Alabama,” the Grand Orleans Imperial Hotel,” where she reckons they’ll be safe.

Oops. The hotel is the site of the convention for the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – which is really a coven of witches from all over the world, who want to exterminate all children by turning them into mice. It doesn’t take long before our young hero and the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) become aware of each other.

There is a good visual horror notion with the idea that witches actually have incredibly wide mouths that they conceal with makeup. Our glimpses of this make us sit up and take notice.

Otherwise, while the design team is having and creating fun with the opulent hotel settings and late ‘60s haute couture for the witches, we wind up in what feels like a Disney film, possibly of that era. Three intrepid youngsters, with help from grownup Grandma, embark on a slapstick scheme to take down a bunch of baddies.

The third act is mainly watching CGI mice/children go on their great saving-the-world mission within the confines of the hotel. The mice, it should be noted, are depicted inconsistently. Daisy remains pretty much the same, and seems to be played by an actual mouse in the early going. Two others, however, keep going back and forth from oddly-sized anthropomorphic creatures that look a little like they’re from CINDERELLA to more like regular rodents. Either would be okay, but the shifts are jarring.

Spencer and Hathaway both seem to have been instructed to be play it big, with Hathaway employing a Natasha Fatale accent. Bruno is a good match as a child version of narrator Rock.

Some attempts have been made to smooth over the misogyny of the premise. Grandma is definitely a powerful woman, as is another female non-witch character. However, it’s not hard to imagine this making an impression on little ones. Anyone from tweens on up will be hard-pressed to take THE WITCHES seriously. It seems intended as a cheerful, energetic Halloween action comedy, but it’s so broad that most of the jokes are stretched past the ripping point.

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