Why another movie based on Roald Dahl’s The Witches — this one directed by Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis — might be of interest to crafts and crew would seem obvious, although it’s been so long since I’ve personally seen the 1990 version directed by Nicholas Roeg I wouldn’t even know where to begin if asked to compare the two.
Narrated by Chris Rock, we’re introduced to a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) who lost both his parents in a car crash, so he’s sent to live with his loving grandmother (Octavia Spencer). She tells the boy stories about witches, which become far more real when the duo travel to the luxurious beachside Grand Orleans Hotel for a getaway only to encounter a convention of witches (as opposed to a coven). Anne Hathaway plays the Grand High Witch who has ordered her followers to use her specia potion to turn all the kids at the beach into mice, starting with our protagonist and a new friend.
Zemeckis is no slouch when it comes to filmmaking, and though it’s been a while since his name was revered on the level of a Spielberg or a Scorsese, he did win the Oscar for directing Forrest Gump. More than a few times since then, he has directed an actor to an Oscar nomination. In fact, Zemeckis was directing movies for 12 years before the original The Witches came out, so who knows? Maybe he wanted to direct a movie based on Dahl’s lesser-known book back then and finally had a chance to do so with this quote-unquote “remake”?
Needless to say, The Witches is a great looking movie, but only to a point. Obviously, the notable crafts highlighted while watching the movie will likely be Production Design, Art Design and Costume Design, as well as Visual FX. Hair and makeup definitely tie things together, particularly with the very distinctive look of the witches and the one played by Hathaway especially.
First things first, and there’s no way to talk about The Witches without marveling at the glorious production design by Gary Freeman (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides). The work done by Freeman and his art team governs the entire look of the film from Grandma’s house earlier in the film to the Grand Orleans Hotel location, which plays a key role in the majority of the movie. I didn’t mention this earlier, but The Witches is a period piece set during some indeterminate period during the ‘60s, so Freeman gets the added fun of clothing people to suit the period along with Costume Designer Joanna Johnston. The latter two-time Oscar nominee’s collaborations with Zemeckis go all the way back to 1988’s Who Framed the Roger Rabbit, which had a similar combination of live action and animated characters. Johnston really gets to shine when dressing up the witches in garish outfits complete with hats and wigs, the latter brushing up against the talented individuals under Makeup & Hair Designers Peter Swords King and Paula Price. The witches are a great example of how the departments worked together to create evil antagonists who were just as much of the time as they seem from out of time. The makeup smoothly transitions into the CG FX used to make Hathaway’s head witch come off even more menacing.
Zemeckis has made quite a name for himself due to his breakthroughs in CG animation, particularly in the performance capture world with films like The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol and Beowulf. Because of that, it’s a little disappointing that the CG FX work by Nviz and Method Studios just doesn’t stand up to what’s currently passing as top-of-the-line CG. The visual FX used to enhance the witches and the powers is just fine, but the anthropomorphic mice, including one voiced by Kristin Chenoweth, barely live up to the rodents in Pixar’s animated Ratatouille, in terms of making them feel as solid and real as the live action characters. The CG is used quite well in later scenes when there are more action scenes between the animated mic and CG-enhanced humans but one does expect more from visual FX these days.
Granted, Zemeckis’ The Witches isn’t nearly as scary as Roeg’s version, but it certainly seems to want to be more kid-friendly from the get-go. The fact that the movie is based on a screenplay originally written by Guillermo del Toro (and having del Toro listed as executive producer with his long-time friend Alfonso Cuaron) gave me some hope that much of that version remained. There certainly seems to be a lot of del Toro’s DNA in the film’s look and themes, but it surely would have been a different movie if he helmed.
Although Hathaway may be the film’s biggest name star, she’s also the movie’s biggest detriment, because she isn’t just overacting. Her flagrant chewing of every bit of the scenery mentioned above is CG-enhanced to make her witch even more terrifying. It’s only terrifying in that some might expect better from an Oscar winner. Spencer’s performance is so much more grounded, which is why her scenes are the best and also why she’s missed whenever the story shifts away from her. As far as the other witches? They barely have three lines between them.
The bottom line is that The Witches is first and foremost meant as a family film and probably more oriented towards kids than their parents, who will probably be far more judgy about some of the movie’s obvious flaws. Zemeckis has frequently shown his knack for making visually-appealing and entertaining family films, and other than Hathaway’s over-the-top performance, the movie should do its job by keeping the kiddies entertained with some impressive visual crafts flair as an added bonus.
Roald Dahl’s The Witches is now available on HBO Max.