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The Witches (2020) Review

1967. An unnamed Alabama orphan (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) arrives at a luxury seafront hotel with his grandma (Octavia Spencer), only for them to find themselves in the midst of a scheming coven led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) — who is planning the extermination of all children by turning them into mice.

Roald Dahl’s classic horror tale, half-Suspiria, half-Ratatouille, would seem tailor-made for Robert Zemeckis’ camera. After all, this is the filmmaker who trapped Bruce Willis and Meryl Streep in a baroque, often hilarious house of horrors in Death Becomes Her, who executive produced Tales From The Crypt, who brought us that traumatic scene involving a cartoon shoe and a barrel of a dip in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The man knows scary. And more to the point, he knows how to make scary fun.

This is why The Witches registers as a mild disappointment. Kicky and colorful, it ushers in its titular characters with elan, but ultimately is somewhat lacking in the frights department. And while it hits all the lurid beats of Dahl’s tale, it fails to add much of its own, aside from transplanting the action from 1980s Bournemouth to 1960s Alabama. The unnamed child hero (played by likable newcomer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, plus slightly hokey narration from Chris Rock) still winds up at a seafront hotel with his grandma (Octavia Spencer), only to find themselves in the midst of a scheming coven. There’s still a grotesque ‘unwigging’ set-piece, much rat-like sniffing out of children (“The cleaner the kid, the poppier he smells,” somebody explains), and plenty of four-pawed antics as several characters are turned into mice, prompting Zemeckis to go to town with the CGI.

In Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation, Anjelica Huston ruled the roost as the Grand High Witch, formidable in her imperious human form and unforgettably nightmarish in her Jim Henson-enhanced, sausage-nosed true mien. Anne Hathaway’s take on the character here is less trauma-forming, but lots of fun: she’s equipped with a Garbo-on-steroids accent that gives the word “mice” seven consonants, amped-up haughtiness, and a wardrobe that perfectly straddles the line between chic and infernal. Whenever she’s on-screen, the film comes to life. And Zemeckis finds some new, tech-assisted ways to make the GHW scary, such as freakishly elongating arms, all the better for chasing shrunken infants through vents.

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