Directed by Robert Zemeckis
I have a confession to make. It’s a big one: I’ve never watched the original 1990 adaptation of the The Witches starring the formidable Anjelica Houston; nor have I read the Roald Dahl novel of the same name, upon which both movies are based.
With that off my chest, I admit that such an omission from my cinematic history may seem sacrilegious; a thought that could lead one to believe makes me unqualified of a worthy opinion on the new Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) film. To that thought I counter, on the contrary, it provided me with a unique perspective for my first viewing of the new adaptation led by Anne Hathaway (Princess Diaries, Modern Love). I was able to press play with a clean slate, as I imagine is true of a large majority of the film’s target audience.
With all this in mind, it’s important to point out that I will strictly focus on the merits of the 2020 version of the film. You will not find comparisons made to the 1990 classic, nor will you find references to the source material. Glaring omissions or questionable additions within the new film will not affect my overall opinion as I will not be privy to this information.
Another important note: this review will remain as spoiler free as possible. That being said, if you wish to remain completely in the dark about all aspects of The Witches, you should stop reading now and return after you’ve had a chance to view the film, which is available now on HBO Max.
Set in 1968 Alabama, Jack (Jahzir Bruno, The Christmas Chronicles 2) is a young boy who is orphaned through tragic circumstances. He moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures) and has trouble adapting to life without his parents. Jack and his grandmother decide to get away and book a stay at an upscale hotel. Upon arriving, they quickly discover that the hotel is hosting a witch convention, led by the one and only Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway).
There is hardly time to process this information as the duo soon learn of the witches evil plot to turn all children into mice. It’s up to Jack and his grandmother to foil the the witches plan before it’s too late.
Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch is spectacularly evil. It would have been easy for this character to come off as campy or even humorously absurd. Hathaway’s portrayal is neither. She fully commits to the over-the-top persona that her character requires and it pays off. Instead of a zany one dimensional villain, we are provided a glimpse into the mind of a truly horrible creature filled with visible rage and hatred. You almost get the feeling that something sinister boils just under a paper-thin surface, and much like It‘s Pennywise, if provoked, her head would crack wide open and out would spill unspeakable horrors.
The premise of the movie succeeds and fails by it’s depiction of this character; after all, the movie is in fact called The Witches. In Hathaway’s capable claws, we are allowed the room needed to properly fear for our protagonist, which is a crucial element needed for the story to work.
This is minor, possibly even petty to mention. It’s definitely a personal pet-peeve of mine. Nevertheless, here it goes: I greatly disliked the portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins (Charles Edwards and Morgana Robinson, respectively), and I don’t believe it was in the way the film intended.
Much in contrast to Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of the Grand High Witch, Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins are merely one dimensional and over-the-top caricatures of the uninvolved and uncaring parent. This is arguably because the characters each have very little on-screen time and it serves the story to get them relatively out of the picture and as quickly as possible, as they are merely side characters and have very little impact to the overall plot.
Additionally, the actors don’t seem particularly to blame for this bump in what is an otherwise smooth road. It’s more as if the direction of their characters were mismatched against the direction for the rest of the cast. Like a couple of villains plucked out of a ’90s camp and then dropped amongst an ensemble that seems to whole-heartedly believe in the story they’re telling.
It’s not a major issue with the film, however; in a story filled with one-toed, claw-fingered, balding witches, I found the Jenkins’ to be the most unbelievable element.
- The story moves at a pace that allows the viewer to digest the information yet never lingers too long for unnecessary exposition. For example, in an age of origin stories, we are mercifully spared much of one for the titular foe. Instead, we are asked to believe that witches simply exist: no further explanation needed. When certain characters find themselves (spoiler ahead) transformed into mice, the film spends very little time on what it takes for those involved to accept the new arrangement. Instead, like a breath of fresh of air, we are allowed the idea that where witches exist, so do talking mice.
- Octavia Spencer delivers a sweet and feisty grandmother. She’s a national treasure and can do no wrong.
- Stanley Tucci does much with the small role that was given him, disappearing into his portrayal, as he so often does.
- Chris Rock provides an enjoyable narration that doesn’t distract from the story being told.
- While not subtracting from my overall enjoyment of the movie, I finished the movie feeling as if I wanted to see what else the witches were capable of doing with their magic. What was presented in the movie was certainly adequate, but I left wanting more.
Overall, I truly enjoyed The Witches and would recommend it as an enjoyable family movie. While it toys with a dark subject matter, it never descends into truly frightening territory that may keep a young mind up well into the night.
Now, with all of that said, I am off to right a wrong by snagging a copy of the classic novel and original 1990 film.
Austen Miles is a husband, father, and writer. He can be found on Twitter: @austen_miles, and on Instagram: austenmiles.