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‘The Witches’ somewhat lacking in magic

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The works of author Roald Dahl have long been prime fodder for the leap from page to screen. The unabashed weirdness and genuinely frightful nature of his work – not to mention the wildly inventive and colorful characters and narratives that he constructs – make these books ideal subjects for translation to visual media. They are fun, bizarre experiences whether you’re reading them or seeing them.

However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing … particularly when a story is revisited for the big screen treatment.

To wit: HBO Max is currently streaming their version of “The Witches,” directed by Robert Zemeckis. It’s an adaptation of Dahl’s 1983 novel of the same name – a novel that already received a VERY successful remake in 1990. It’s a bold choice, remaking a film that, while 30 years old, still maintains a place of high regard in the memories of many moviegoers. A bold choice … and a somewhat misguided one.

Don’t get me wrong – this new version isn’t bad. It just doesn’t land with the same spirited resonance as its predecessor. Much like Tim Burton’s stab at “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory,” this new take on “The Witches” simply feels unnecessary. It’s no one’s fault, really – everyone involved seems to be operating in good faith and really giving it their all. It’s just that there probably shouldn’t have been a project for which to give said all.

In 1968, a young boy named Hero (Jazhir Bruno, TV’s “The Oath”) is orphaned when he and his parents are in a terrible car accident. With nowhere else to go, he is sent to live with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer, “Onward”). He spends weeks in a sad depression as Grandma struggles to help him start to feel better; eventually, he starts to come out of it when Grandma gifts him a pet mouse he names Daisy.

But when Hero has an encounter with a spooky-voiced, snake-wielding woman offering him candy in the grocery store, he learns that there’s a whole lot about the world that he doesn’t know. Specifically, Grandma tells him that what he encountered was a witch. That’s right – witches are real. They’re evil and they hate children – particularly the smell – and go out of their way to make kids disappear by magically turning them into animals.

Hero also learns that Grandma is a noted folk healer, precisely the sort of person that witches also hate. The two flee Grandma’s house and head to a hotel, a fancy place on the Gulf Coast where Grandma’s cousin used to be head chef. They’re welcomed by the hotel manager Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci, “Worth”) – well, “welcomed” anyway – and situated in Room 766.

But getting away from witches isn’t that easy.

After sneaking into an empty ballroom to work on training Daisy, Hero finds himself trapped when a group of women – ostensibly part of a children’s safety organization – make their way in and lock the door behind them. Here, we learn that the organization is a front for witches and that their leader, the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, “The Last Thing He Wanted”), has assembled them to execute a plan to get rid of all the world’s children once and for all.

He sees Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick, “Holmes & Watson”), a young boy he met at the hotel, turned into a mouse before his very eyes. And then, when he can’t escape detection, he too is turned into a mouse. Hero and Bruno only avoid getting squashed when Daisy reveals herself to be Mary (Kristen Chenowith, “A Christmas Love Story”), a girl who had been mousified just a few months earlier.

The trio flees to meet up with Grandma, and together, they must find a way to put a stop to the Grand High Witch’s plot and end the threat of witches forever.

Like I said before, “The Witches” isn’t a bad movie. There’s some fun to be had here, and there are moments that definitely hit on the creepiness that is such a vital component to Dahl’s work. The visual effects are solid, giving us some stylishly transformative moments and some pretty scary-looking witches. Plus, we get some solid set pieces that turn out to be quite enjoyable in their own right.

There’s just not much in the way of soul here. The film ultimately feels rather empty, a lovely package without a lot inside. In that way, it shares some commonalities with the last big-screen effort from Zemeckis, the similarly-spiritless “Welcome to Marwen,” another film that uses its aesthetic as something of a crutch.

It should be noted, however, that there’s no disputing the work being done by the performers. We’ll start with Hathaway, who is going for it with that special brand of theatre-kid manic energy that she has. It’s a wild and over-the-top performance that doesn’t quite land, but the unsteadiness is easily forgive because she is so clearly having a ball – that vibe goes a long way in a movie like this one. Spencer is a delight as well; she’s got a gift for playing these wise characters without succumbing to stereotype or parody. She’s always a welcome presence. Bruno is fine as the kid – the script doesn’t ask a whole lot of him, even when he’s ostensibly leading the way. Tucci seems to be enjoying himself in his handful of scenes. Oh, and Chris Rock is the narrator, so there’s that.

“The Witches” is a perfectly acceptable movie, one that I have no doubt will prove entertaining to the many kids who will watch it in the coming days. It has an engaging look and some solid performances, with a couple of good scares and some quality sight gags. But in the end, it just feels rather disposable, a movie that you will watch and then simply … forget about.

Alas, the magic just isn’t there.

[3 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 26 October 2020 15:13

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