(SPOILERS) The rough reception of lost-his-way Robert Zemeckis’ utterly redundant remake of The Witches is richly deserved. It’s as lacking in reason-to-be and filmmaking passion as the majority of his work during the past couple of decades. Unless, by reason-to-be, one means his box of effects tricks, from feverish mocap nightmares – The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol – to a tepid return to live action with as many “seamless” CG augmentations as possible (Flight, The Walk, Allied, Welcome to Marwen). Few now seem interested in his movies, which rather reflects his own visible enthusiasm. The Witches was previously made – quite splendidly – by Nicolas Roeg in 1990, and in every respect – direction, performances, effects, atmosphere – this version is grossly inferior.
It isn’t only Zemeckis who must take the blame this time. Sure, he’s the one who decided a retake on the Roald Dahl tale needed really obvious – and ill-judged – shots designed for the 3D viewing experience (so borderline risible when the picture premieres on HBO or Sky). But it was greedy Guillermo del Toro, like a fat boy let loose in a sweet shop, who initiated the project (then planned for animation). He and fellow countryman cohort Alfonso Cuarón share producing credits (Zemeckis, del Toro and Kenya Barris co-wrote the screenplay. The latter’s underwhelming recent work includes Shaft and Coming 2 America but allows cynical Warner to claim African-American authenticity).
What did they think they could do that would improve on Roeg’s film? Better creature/witch designs? Well, that didn’t work. The CGI reduxes of the Henson workshop witch prosthetics are lousy, with Fright Night meets Venom meets Joker mouths and long goofy arms/deformed hands and feet. The latter got the picture in hot water for “perpetuating bias against individuals with ectrodatyly and other limb differences”. Cue gushing apologies from filmmakers who had already laboriously relocated the story to Alabama, complete with black protagonists, in the aid of that all-important progressive cred (see Barris above). You have to laugh.
The Witches is limp, lifeless. Octavia Spencer does her best as the Grandmother, the only performer here escaping with any credibility intact. Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, fresh from stinking up the already whiffy The Christmas Chronicles 2, evidences that, no matter how much someone may wish to make him the next big thing child actor, it ain’t gonna happen. Chris Rock is even worse as his older mouse narrator self (as per the source material, Bruno is transformed into a rodent). His cheerfully irreverent delivery sounds very much like a desperate attempt to stir up a connective pulse across an inert and indifferent movie, and it fails abysmally.
Anne Hathaway is godawful as the Grand High Witch, entirely devoid of the elegance, comic timing and vital fear factor Angelica Huston brought to the part (Huston gets the mainstream notices for Morticia Adams, but this was her truly great family movie role). For once, I can get behind the Razzies in their “unkind” singling out of Hathaway. Then there’s Stanley Tucci. The one thing I’ve been able to say for Tucci is that, no matter the movie, he’s never boring and is often a highlight when it comes to lesser material. Not here, he’s utterly forgettable in the Rowan Atkinson hotel manager part. Codie-Lei Eastick is a cut and paste of the previous Bruno (the fat English boy who is also mouse-ified), making the unflattering comparisons with Roeg’s version the more acute. For some reason – I expect someone told them they needed more female characters – Daisy is revealed to have been a human girl until recently. A human girl voiced by 52-year-old Kristin Chenoweth. Which is an odd choice. Also in the cast is Josette Simon, once an acting legend for her performance as Dayna in Blake’s 7 but now boasting a keen agent (what with this, Wonder Woman and Detective Pikachu).
Since the performances can’t bolster the business, all that’s left is Zemeckis’ visual acumen, and it’s in conspicuously short supply. He’s using every opportunity he can to avoid the tangible. Hotel veranda overlooking a beach? CGI the thing in. Cat? CGI. Snake? Bad CGI. Mice and rats? CGI and CGI.
Roeg knew to relish the witches preying on kids, but in this new version, when the antagonists’ rallying cry is “How will I squish this child?” you wonder if it might not rather be a tacit exposé of jab man Bill’s chum Maria Abramovitch. Zemeckis has a fairly low-key profile with regards to scandalous or concealed skeleton activities, but he is known to fund Family Planning (read eugenics) and has, of course, worked several times with Guantanamo Hanks (as well as making incest-promoting Back to the Future. And Who Framed Roger Rabbit, complete with Jessica Rabbit’s snatch. At least, until Disney removed it, along with Daryl Hannah’s buttocks).
Several points of plot order are worth noting. Grandmother informs her grandson “The man who built the hotel was a numerologist”, but little more is made of this aside from singling out room numbers 766 and 666. As if as an apologia, she also advises that “Witches aren’t really women at all. They’re demons in female shape”. This is, of course, a transparent attempt to retreat from the essential misogyny of Dahl’s work(s). It isn’t really washing, though. The rather grim possible/likely shortened life span of mouse boy appears to have been offset by the unnecessary coda, since he must be at least eighteen. Or maybe not, since he is now looking undeniably elderly.
Other failed remakes come to mind in the wake of The Witches, from the Coen Brothers’ Ladykillers to Tim Burton’s also utterly lifeless Dumbo. The strangest thing is how Zemeckis has continued working during the last decade when only Flight could be regarded as a hit, and even then, a modest one. Careers have been stranded on less (Barry Levinson, for example). Somehow, Zemeckis just keeps barrelling along, currently filming a Pinocchio with Guantanamo Hanks – or his brother – (as Geppetto), the most horrendously flagrant role he’s taken since, well… Fred Rogers. Then he has The King with Dwayne Johnson (also a popular go-to for adreno detectives). The Witches stinks, so Zemeckis won’t have a high bar to make either of those better.