Robert Zemekis’ reimagining of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story is a catalogue of hits and misses. “Un film de Robert Zemekis: never knowingly undercooked.”
Zemekis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump, Roger Rabbit) turns in another tour-de-force technical triumph that contains all of his usual subtlety; none. It’s movie that tries so so hard and falls so, so short. There’s jerky, stop-go pacing, bits of backstory in flashback, interludes with a British boy’s parents and imaginative transformations of humans into mice, rats and chickens. The chase sequences work well, the dodgy voice-over, less so.
Transposed to Alabama in 1968, little regard is paid to segregation when Octavia Spencers’ livewire Grandma takes her orphan grandson to stay at a grand hotel full of black staff and white guests. Stanley Tucci turns in a neat little Devil Wears Prada cameo as the hotel manager.
The witty script by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro sticks closely to Dahl’s plot, which at times is extremely Brother’s Grimm, er, grim and properly scary for young children. The bright, 60’s colour scheme fails to take the edge off the darkness. Zemekis’ version also sticks to Dahl’s down beat ending.
The elephant in the room, however, is our principal villainess.
Anne Hathaway is clearly having herself a ball as the head witch, hamming it up in grand, theatrical, pantomime style. Channelling Tim Curry’s Frankenfurter with a half-baked Norwegian accent somewhere between Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther and Sacha Baron-Cohen’s Bruno; that is, NOT Norwegian or anything recognisably from Earth.
This is a story that needed Tim Burton’s horror sensibility. What it got is Zemekis’ obsession with sparkly things and big gestures.
You can forgive Zemekis his excesses and his technical tinkering. You can admire Octavia Spencer, young Jahzir Bruno and the under-used Stanley Tucci. You can’t forgive Ann Hathaway. RC
Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro
Rating: PG (Thematic Elements|Scary Images/Moments|Language)
Genre: comedy, adventure, fantasy
Running time: 1h 45m
Cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Chris Rock, Jahzir Bruno