The Robert Zemeckis who made “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” shared Roald Dahl’s rare command of kid-enticing stories that dance on the knife’s edge between daydreams and nightmares. He would’ve been the perfect director for a tech-forward new adaptation of “The Witches,” Dahl’s subversively dark fantasy novel about a coven of child-eating ghouls who disguise themselves as well-off women and gather at a luxury English hotel in order to plot their final solution for disposing of the country’s youngsters (it involves lacing the chocolate supply with a potion that turns people into mice). Alas, the plastic and profoundly uninspired version of “The Witches” that’s coming to HBO Max this weekend was made by the Robert Zemeckis who directed “The Polar Express,” and he only knows how to scare children that severely by accident.
There’s something to be said for any movie capable of turning a kid’s lit classic into a dead-eyed chimera so frightening that it almost cured this Jewish critic of his lifelong Christmas FOMO (almost), and it’s sincerely hard to have anything but respect for the madman who convinced Warner Bros to fund a $150 million retelling of “Beowulf.” But the motion capture monstrosities that Zemeckis made between 2004 and 2009 hinted at a filmmaker so focused on bridging the gap between actors and animation that he kept trying to leap across the uncanny valley with his eyes closed. That obsession eventually led to some of the oddest live-action studio movies of our risk-averse era.
Every feature that Zemeckis has made in the last 10 years has demanded that you ask yourself “why?,” but most of them have been kind enough to answer that question in the most obvious terms. Why did Zemeckis reduce “Man on Wire” to the stuff of a goofy blockbuster spectacle? Because he saw Philippe Petit as a human toon, and wanted to recreate his iconic World Trade Center walk in you-are-there 3D. Why did Zemeckis transform the poignant documentary “Marwencol” into the only shoe fetish dramedy that’s ever required more than $20 million worth of special effects? Because in Mark Hogencamp’s bittersweet biography he found the potential of a live-action “Toy Story” for adults. Why did Zemeckis create a World War II melodrama with such garish CGI that it felt like a deepfake “Casablanca?” Because nobody wanted to watch Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard have sex in the desert unless the stars were buried under a massive digital sandstorm.
Wait… no, that can’t be right. Whatever, the point is there are a number of reasons why Zemeckis might’ve wanted to work his magic on “The Witches.” Some of those are self-evident from the premise of this story alone: Dahl’s novel offers a great opportunity for creature design, the second half of its plot leaves plenty of room for “Ratatouille”-esque shenanigans, and the character of the Grand High Witch — so traumatizingly played by Anjelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation — gives Anne Hathaway a chance to give a performance so big it makes the cast of “Death Becomes Her” feel like they were doing Chekhov by comparison. And some of the reasons why this material might’ve appealed to Zemeckis are more invented than discovered, such as the clever idea of moving Dahl’s tale from England to the director’s mid-century American métier and reimagining its orphaned young protagonist as a Black boy learning to navigate the dangers of the Civil Rights-era South, where appearances are everything and the kindness of strangers is not always as benevolent as it seems.
And yet the experience of actually watching Zemeckis take on “The Witches” is so bizarre (and boring) because the movie seems determined to defy any of the understandable rationales for why he might have made it; whenever it threatens to lock on to a raison d’être, it ricochets away in search of something more anodyne. Things start on a promisingly nostalgic note, as a narrator voiced by Chris Rock talks us through the finer points of witches (“A witch gets the same pleasure from squishing a child as you get from a sundae”), and introduces us to a newly parentless kid named Charlie played by Jahzir Kadeem Bruno who’s sent to live with his grandma in Demopolis, Alabama once his mom and dad are killed in a car accident.
Octavia Spencer is so wonderful and immediately winsome as the boy’s tough but tender guardian that it almost doesn’t matter that her character’s hazy backstory feels lifted from a bad episode of “Lovecraft Country,” and that her entire dramatic potential is tucked inside a persistent cough that conveniently disappears along with every other meaningful source of conflict or suspense as the movie races toward its explosive nothing of a climax; you love Spencer’s Grandma from the moment she tries to cheer Charlie up with an impromptu version of the Four Tops’ classic “Reach Out I’ll Be There.” Her character is the only aspect of “The Witches” that consistently suggests there’s a better movie hiding beneath this film’s sour candy surface — a movie in which the contributions of Zemeckis’ all-star co-writers Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro are even faintly palpable, and not just flattened into the stuff of tiresome business.
But that’s exactly what this ersatz Tim Burton fiasco does after Charlie makes contact with a (Black) witch and Grandma spirits him away to the safety of the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel, the kind of willowy Antebellum institution that will eventually become a wedding venue for white influencers who don’t ask enough questions or care about the answers. “Witches only prey on the poor,” Grandma tells Charlie, so they’ll be safe at the poshest joint in town. Not so fast! The International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is meeting in the hotel’s most private ballroom, and — faster than you can say “pro-life Republicans” — it turns out that the seemingly altruistic group is actually a coven of evil witches!
There’s no attempt at worldbuilding whatsoever when it comes to either the witches (Hathaway is the only one with an actual character to play) or the hotel staff that scramble to meet their demands, but the ever-reliable Stanley Tucci does his darndest to make hotel manager Mr. Stringer into a one-man band; there’s never a bad time for a “Devil Wears Prada” reunion, and Tucci’s performance manages to split the difference between sweet and painfully submissive, as he strives to keep the hotel in order even if it means bending over backwards to serve a group of hissing women who are hiding bald heads under their wigs, snakes up their sleeves, and rows of shark teeth behind their Glasgow smiles.
As for Hathaway, well, at least someone seems to be having a good time. Going all-in on the elastic comic energy she brought to “Ocean’s 8,” Hathaway’s extremely gif-able performance finds her threading the needle between Frau Farbissina and Melania Trump and then garnishing it with some Norse tongue-rolling for good measure. The actress is forced to wage a war of attrition against the layers of CG mishigas that Zemeckis slathers over her — the combined effect of which is about as scary as the Halloween display outside of a dentist’s office, even if there’s something to be said about the bone-snapping body horror of the Grand High Witch’s stretchable arms — but Hathaway puts up a good fight, and seems to implicitly understand the tone of a movie that wants to be fluffy and frightening at the same time (and very much doesn’t want to engage with Dahl’s fraught depiction of gender, beauty, or disability whatsoever).
If the rest of the film had the courage to commit to any of its other choices, then at the very least it might’ve been a more compelling failure. But where Hathaway tries to split that difference, Zemeckis careens between silly and scary in a way that prevents “The Witches” from leaning into either of those modes. The big unveiling sequence feels like a Universal theme park version of a nightmare you once had, and there’s nothing the least bit fresh or novel about the antics that ensue once Charlie and his friend Bruno are mouse-ified; the shoddy rodent effects and half-baked setpieces don’t even allow Zemeckis to tap into whatever nostalgia parents might have for a time when all you needed to make a decent kids movie was an animal, a fancy hotel, and a character actor with some time on their hands. Throw in Kristin Chenoweth as a mouse who squeaks like a southern belle and you’ve got a slab of family entertainment so generic that you end up losing sight of whatever it was that appealed to Zemeckis about this idea in the first place.
Zemeckis has made some unsuccessful films over the last 20 years, but “The Witches” is the most frustrating of them all because it feels like it could’ve been made by somebody else. Anybody else. Roeg’s version may have scarred a generation of kids for life, but at least they remembered it.
“The Witches” will be available to stream on HBO Max starting Thursday, October 22.