What are you up to this time, Robert Zemeckis?
Of course the man needs no introduction, having directed some of the most iconic films of the ’80s and ’90s. Right up until Cast Away in 2000, nobody could doubt that he was kicking ass. And yes, though the films of his mo-cap phase were and still are highly controversial, there can be no doubt that they played a crucial role in getting photo-realistic VFX to where they are now.
Then came Mars Needs Moms, still one of the most catastrophic flops in Disney history. True, he didn’t actually direct that film (step forward, Simon Wells), but his fingerprints were all over it and he took the brunt of the backlash as producer. His “mo-cap” phase went up in flames, so he transitioned into an “Oscar-bait drama” phase. This resulted in Flight, The Walk, and Allied, all respectably solid films that never really had a lasting impact. Then came Welcome to Marwen, a critical and commercial bomb that left Zemeckis’ Oscar ambitions drenched in radioactive fallout.
Two years later, Zemeckis has returned to direct The Witches (2020), the latest adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel. Though of course the previous 1990 adaptation starring Anjelica Huston is easily more famous, having provided copious nightmare fuel for kids of the time.
(Full disclosure: I still haven’t seen the 1990 effort, nor have I read the original text.)
Development for this one started all the way back in 2008, when it was conceived as a stop-motion film under Guillermo del Toro. Zemeckis and GDT both have screenplay credits here, alongside Kenya Barris, late of TV shows such as “black-ish”, “grown-ish”, and “#BlackAF”. Though Barris’ cinematic output (Girls Trip and the 2019 update of Shaft) is significantly less impressive. I’m sure Barris’ input was invaluable in shifting the story from 1980s Northern Europe to 1960s Alabama, swapping the race of the protagonist in the process.
So what’s Zemeckis’ latest filmmaking phase? Is he making kids’ movies now? Films about race? Will he spend the next three or four movies riding the coattails of other great auteurs like GDT?
Perhaps more importantly, will his latest phase even get a chance to continue, or will it crash and burn with this movie before it even gets started? Well, let’s see what we’ve got.
The movie opens with an expository voice-over from Chris Rock, and we’re already off to a bad start. Not that I hate Chris Rock, far from it. He’s quite easily one of the greatest comedians of all time, and that’s the problem.
Actually, no — the problem is that while Rock is a world-class comedian, he’s a godawful voice actor. When you hear Chris Rock, you know you’re hearing Chris Rock. And it’s really hard for me to listen to Chris Rock going on about witches and how much they hate children, when he’s using the exact same delivery and tone of voice that I associate with rants about black people, mass shootings, relationship issues, and other more mature topics. But I digress.
Anyway, our young unnamed protagonist is played by newcomer Jahzir Bruno. He’s orphaned in a car crash on his eighth Christmas and promptly adopted by his unnamed grandmother (played by Octavia Spencer). The first fifteen minutes or so focus on our young narrator getting through the grief of losing his parents — it’s a genuinely sweet and heartfelt way of getting us to care for the narrator and his grandma, selling the all-important rapport between them.
Long story short, our narrator comes to the attention of a local witch. As Grandma has some familiarity with witches (it’s implied that she’s a Voodoo practitioner of some kind), she knows that she and the narrator have to run away and quickly. The good news is, her cousin (whom we never meet) is the longtime executive chef of a high-class hotel, with a room where they can hide for a few days. The bad news is, this exact same hotel just happens to be the site for a huge annual convention and all the witches of the world will be in attendance.
Enter Anne Hathaway, as the Grand High Witch.
To be clear, the first act had some problems. It could be over-the-top campy and the CGI was dodgy in places, but the heartfelt story of a boy and his grandma was enough to keep it all in balance. Then Hathaway came in, a godawful CGI cat on her arm, a cartoonish Eastern European accent in her voice, acting against Stanley Tucci like the both of them are in a contest to see who can chew the most scenery. In that one scene, any pretense of balance was shot to hell.
Hathaway spends every second of this movie mugging for the camera, overplaying every line like she’s trying to make her Academy Award spontaneously combust. No joke, her performance here is bad enough that I want to reconsider every word of praise I ever gave her at any point in her career to date.
It’s not funny. It’s not scary. It’s just annoying and pathetic. Any chance this movie had was obliterated upon the introduction of our main antagonist. And we’ve still got another 70 minutes to go.
Dooming the movie even further, the filmmakers can’t even keep their own mythology straight. For example, it’s clearly established that witches only stick to poor children who wouldn’t be missed if they disappeared. Which opens the door for some potent and subtle social commentary, especially with the optics of a young black protagonist against a powerful white villainess.
But then the Grand High Witch decrees that ALL children everywhere in the world must be extinguished, and she decides to start with Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), the child of a wealthy family come to stay at the hotel. Like that makes any sense. I mean, yes, this particular wealthy family turns out to be a bunch of assholes who don’t care about their son, but what are the odds?
Seriously, what’s the endgame here? How do the witches expect to eradicate EVERY SINGLE CHILD all over the world and get away with it? You think the adults won’t notice that all the kids have gone missing? That not a single adult will put two and two together, connecting the disappearances to the witches? You think they’ll let the witches go without complaint? Because a worldwide tour of the Salem Witch Trials seems like the more probable outcome! And yes, I’m aware that this oversight was grandfathered in by the source material, but if the filmmakers want to bring it up without offering a semi-plausible solution, that’s on them.
Then of course we have the horror aspect, starting when the witches transform our narrator into a mouse. Presenting horror in a kid-friendly way is a tough balance, and I can respect the ambition of any filmmaker who attempts it. The problem is that the CGI in this movie is godawful from start to finish. While the action is nicely fast-paced and Grandmaster Alan Silvestri turned in an overly grandiose score, it’s inherently difficult to be afraid of something that looks so blatantly fake. How tragic that a filmmaker who did so much to push the CGI envelope fifteen years ago should still be making films that look like they were rendered with tech from the ’00s.
Oh, and there’s also the matter of Bruno himself, who tags along with our protagonist after they both get turned into mice. He’s worse than useless. He’s a walking collection of fat jokes, nothing but whiny dead weight. It’s like if someone tried to make Augustus Gloop into a sympathetic character — it was never going to work!
We’ve also got Kristin Chenowith on hand, providing the voice of a girl who was turned into a mouse four months prior. With all respect to Ms. Chenowith and her sadly underrated skills as a voice actor, casting her to voice a child character opposite two actual children was a mistake.
The Witches (2020) is a disaster. Octavia Spencer puts all of her colossal talent toward injecting some heart into the proceedings, and she’s aided by an enthusiastic debut turn from Jahzir Bruno, but it’s not enough. While the film utterly nailed the narrator/grandmother relationship, the equally vital three-way friendship between the child-mice doesn’t work because the characters and their chemistry are broken.
Between the cut-rate CGI and career-worst performances from Anne Hathaway and Stanley Tucci, we’ve got a film that’s campy and overblown in all the wrong ways. I can’t possibly stress enough how the film is messy and annoying when it should be charming and scary.
In the hands of Travis Knight or anyone at Laika, this could’ve been something wonderful. Hell, even Eli Roth might’ve had a shot at getting this right, if he learned the right lessons from The House with a Clock in Its Walls. But Robert Zemeckis — a washed-up relic who doesn’t seem to have any idea what he wants to do with his career anymore — just put another nail in the coffin of his own legacy with this one. Absolutely not recommended.