Roald Dahl’s The Witches – Blu-Ray Review

The new version of The Witches shamefully adds “Roald Dahl’s” to the title, as if to suggest the long-dead writer would’ve approved of the adaptation… He didn’t like 1990 version, so there no way in hell he would’ve liked this reimagining. The film’s director, Robert Zemeckis, dismissed the original film, claiming that his version was “closer to the book.” He is completely full of shit—with the exception of keeping the book’s ending, but in the most watered-down, Disneyfied nonsense way possible. The fact that Guillermo del Toro ever had a hand in the script for this version (he is a credited screenwriter) isn’t evident on the screen.

Zemeckis came out of the Steven Spielberg school of filmmaking after he barged into his office and showed Spielberg his student film, Spielberg then took him under his wing. He has made some true classics, like Used Cars and the Back to the Future trilogy, but something happened where he became increasingly interested in technology over story. First came Who Framed Roger Rabbit, then a few years later Forrest Gump, and then The Polar Express, where he went down this route of motion capture and CGI-heavy films, and he is still stuck in that world. In the aftermath of the success of Gump, he did some fun genre films like Contact and What Lies Beneath, but it’s been diminishing returns since the pre-Forrest Gump days. Hopefully, after The Witches Zemeckis will finally put away those CGI paint brushes… but he won’t, he has a new take on Pinocchio up next.

This new take on The Witches is a complete fiasco from the opening minutes, Chris Rock in the most over-the-top voice imaginable to narrate the story as the older version of the boy (he has no name). They’ve decided to change the location from ’80s Britain/Norway as in the novel, to Alabama 1968, and make the boy and his grandma black. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but the choice of race, location and period serves no purposes except that they can play some Motown hits on the soundtrack… because, you know, white people never listened to Motown records. The basic set-up is the same: boys encounters a witch, he and grandma flee to hotel near the sea (the circumstances are different), and the hotel is having a secret witches convention! The way it plays it in the original film is way closer to Dahl’s book.

Anne Hathaway plays the head of the witches, and tries her best. She took her inspiration from RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is cool, it’s a deliberately exaggerated role so that’s not a bad pool to draw from. I would be shocked if somebody didn’t already do a drag version of Anjelica Huston’s iconic take on the role on RuPaul’s show. Hathaway is about the film’s only redeeming quality. It’s not quite as bad as Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka, but not that far off. Octavia Spencer does her 21st mammy schtick with a bit of a wise old “magic negro” trope thrown in for good measure. She is actually a good actress and really above these outdated Black stereotypes. Zemeckis got the creator of Blackish, Kenya Barris, to work on the script, and this is the best an African-American screenwriter can come up with?

If the lame adaptation of Roald Dahl wasn’t eyeball-gouging enough… here comes the CGI. I’m still suffering from PTSD from sitting through Cats last year, and I was getting some heavy-duty flashbacks. Astonishingly poor CGI is incorporated into almost every shot when the witches show up. The big reveals of the witches are not terrifying in the way that the original was, but just because of how poorly rendered they are. I did notice that amusingly, some of the witches in the hall are men in drag, as in the original, but not as many because of CGI! The mice the kids are turned in to are some serious Cats-level furry CGI—but wait, there is a black cat that looks so cartoony, and on top of that, when Anne Hathaway strokes it, her hand is CGI as well, for god knows why. NOTE TO SELF: DO NOT SEE LIVE ACTION FILMS WITH CGI TALKING ANIMALS AGAIN!

The Witches could’ve been something special. The first four Dahl feature adaptations are wonderful and timeless… This version, despite the allegedly “state of art CGI,” feels so out of date. Everybody deserved better. Maybe if Del Toro got to make the stop-motion version he initially pitched to the studio, it could’ve been better.

The extras include deleted scenes (I wish the film itself was deleted from my memory), three featurettes, and a gag reel… no, it’s not the audience gagging while enduring the film.

Ian Schultz

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