I’ll say this for The Witches: I never expected to find myself laughing out loud at an extended bit in which Anne Hathaway chews on the word “garlic” through a funny accent.
Roughly halfway through the movie, there she is—posing and pouting on a gorgeous oceanside patio as the Grand High Witch, sheathed against the soft waves in a high-collared black and purple suit that screams “Crimson Peak by way of Mars Attacks!” On each repetition of the word, she somehow finds an even more insane inflection.
“No ghorrrlic in thee soup,” she purrs in Germanic(ish?) slash Eastern European(ish) tones to an obsequious Alabaman hotelier played by her Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci. As he struggles to understand, she revels in the word, practically rolling the “R” and clicking the “K” at the end: “Ghorrrrrlick.” By the third time she’s lost all patience; it’s all attitude, no nonsense: “No! Gorlick!”
Hathaway’s performance here is a comedic marvel—the culmination of her increasingly campy performances in Ocean’s 8 and Serenity. At times, the grand weirdness of it all echoes one of The Witches director Robert Zemeckis’ most successful weirdo films, Death Becomes Her.
Some performers might have caved under the pressure of following Anjelica Huston in this role after the legendary actress’s turn in Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation. Hathaway, instead, has sunk her claws in and found something new and equally grotesque—more maniacal, more silly, and somehow also more dangerous. But she’s done so in a film that never quite earns her performance.
Thirty years ago Anjelica Huston donned a black velvet dress and a silicone mask designed by Jim Henson—and then peeled her face off to terrify a generation of children. The enduring memory of that adaptation might explain why so many big names gathered behind the camera to try and get 2020’s retelling right. Zemeckis directed and also produced The Witches alongside Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. Black-ish creator Kenya Barris joined Zemeckis and del Toro to write the screenplay.
Like Roeg before him, Zemeckis picks and chooses which parts of Roald Dahl’s story he wants—although his ending nixes the choice his predecessor made that upset the author. Children of 2020 will likely find the new Witches’ visuals (CGI animals, stylized production) more familiar than the 1990 version’s mixture of live-action and puppetry.
Zemeckis also sidesteps most of the anti-Semitism embedded in Dahl’s text, replacing the original witches’ large noses—an anti-Semitic trope—with gaping, toothy CGI maws. Still, even this film suffers from a similar cruelty to Dahl’s work, mocking and dehumanizing characters based on common physical traits like fatness and baldness.
As one might imagine based on the number of cooks in the kitchen, The Witches is too tonally scattered to transform the text into anything new—even despite a change in setting from 1980s England to 1960s Alabama. One can see echoes of the director and producers’ previous work—some uncanny Polar Express-like animation here, a little Crimson Peak-inflected body horror over there—but the narrative never stabilizes enough to convey any deeper meaning. Even the film’s target age can be hard to pin down at times.
In this version of the story, Chris Rock provides a new layer of narration as the grown-up version of a little boy raised by his grandmother after a tragic car accident killed his parents. Octavia Spencer—magnetic and warm as ever, if unchallenged by her role—plays the loving grandmother who steps in to raise him and gives him a new pet mouse, whom he names Daisy.
After a scary run-in at the drugstore, Grandma eventually tells her grandson all about witches—demons in human form who walk among us every day in wigs and gloves, who hate children above all else. When the two flee to the finest hotel in Alabama, they unwittingly land themselves in the middle of a witch convention—where the coven is plotting to destroy children once and for all by turning them into mice.
Each performer in The Witches seems to be acting in a different film. Spencer’s performance is largely straightforward and earnest, as is newcomer Jahzir Bruno’s as he plays her grandson. Rock’s narration injects some much-needed comedic energy, but that vibrant voice feels disjunct from how blandly the character’s younger self is written. And then there’s Anne Hathaway, playing with a menagerie of CGI pets that include a cat and a snake that doubles as a dress strap—and all the while, for some reason, wearing a metal bustier.
Either version of this film, one that leaned into the emotional resonance and narrative potential of the story or one that went all-out crazy, would have been more successful than the confused middle ground on which this one landed. For some, even Hathaway’s gonzo performance might not justify the admittedly excessive runtime. But what can I say? As I sit here contemplating changing my phone’s ringtone to “gorrlic,” I must admit that The Witches must’ve cast some kind of spell on me.