Remakes are all the rage these days. It seems everywhere you look, classic (or in this case, cult classic) films are being remade all of the time – especially family films. The success rate varies and is measured by different standards. The Jungle Book (2016) was released to high financial returns and near universal praise from fans and critics alike. The Lion King remake was released by Disney in 2019, reaching incredible box office heights but having a rather lukewarm, divided response from fans and critics alike. Mulan (2020) was unable to get past a hurdle of controversy and ultimately bombed for Disney. Now, people are looking to the Robert Zemeckis-helmed, The Witches (2020) to inject some Halloween fun into their pandemic dominated year. And the big question is: is it a trick or a treat? Well, coming from someone who has never seen the original cult classic, I’d say it’s a bit of both.
Robert Zemeckis has a rather spotty track record as a director. He’s directed some of the most beloved films of all time, including Back to the Future and Forrest Gump. Those two films alone have more importance in pop culture history than most directors could get in their lifetimes. And then there’s the more divisive films that Zemeckis has made. The Polar Express is a Christmas must-watch for many people every year (including myself) but tends to split audiences when it comes to it’s visual effects. He also directed Disney’s A Christmas Carol in 2010, which despite starring Jim Carrey in multiple roles, also deeply divided audiences. And then he’s made films like Allied, The Walk, and Welcome to Marwen – all films that either failed to be financially successful or critically adored. Zemeckis and his filmography divides audiences and has glorious highs along with bleak, yet typically ambitious lows. And I think The Witches (2020) is a mirror to his filmography in that way.
The film starts well enough in my opinion. Octavia Spencer is always a delight in any role and that holds true in this film. I’m always in awe of how committed she is and how expertly she can balance emotion, comedy and even at times, horror. Her performance as Grandma is sweet and tender, while also showing strength and even a knack for humor at times. Jahzir Kadeem Bruno is a nice find in his role as Hero Boy (as in The Polar Express, Zemeckis seems to have an odd fascination with nameless characters), though like most child actors, a line here or there could have used some more polishing. I think he and Spencer have a nice chemistry and it’s delightful to see their dynamic. They open the film with emotional depth and a nice hearty dose of charisma. And then we get to the titular witches.
The introduction to the witches is superb. Zemeckis unravels their introduction with genuine suspense and some nice visuals coming from the silhouette of rain on a window along with some nice, eerie moonlight. And when you first see even a hint of Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch it’s an incredibly creepy treat. Hathaway dominates this film with an endless amount of charisma and commitment to her insane role. She cackles, screams, and gives the perfect eye rolls with genuine witchy magic. She had me laughing several times with mere looks at other characters. Her commitment to such a truly disturbing character, while also having a genuinely fun time reminds me of another witchy performance from years ago. I’d liken Hathaway’s performance in this film to Bette Midler’s now classic performance in Hocus Pocus. Yes, Anne Hathaway is going full Sanderson Sister here – and she’s excellent at it. That’s a massive compliment coming from someone who is a massive fan of Hocus Pocus. All I can say to Hathaway is bravo. She and Spencer make this film worth at least checking out once. Sadly though, Hathaway’s enthusiasm and commitment don’t totally save the film from it’s missteps: the directing, writing, and pacing.
The film starts off nicely paced as mentioned before, but after the witches become the focal point, the story just kind of… happens? It doesn’t feel like there’s any proper build up or tension brewing throughout the film. Things just happen and I felt rather unaffected by them as they did. There’s not a lot done with the characters in terms of growth. The witches also fall kind of flat rather shortly after their grand introduction (besides Hathaway). They don’t do too much, and they don’t really as as much menace as intended after the first act of the film. The story and characters often feel hollow, in terms of depth and how entertaining they are. I found myself consistently wanting to like the film more than I actually did, and that’s not a winning strategy when trying to create (or in this case recreate) a Halloween classic.
The visuals are also all over the place. I love what they do with effects in regards to Hathaway’s Grand High Witch, but a lot of the CGI feels dated. There’s a black cat belonging to Hathaway that looks very fake. And even the CGI on the mice in the film often seems shaky. There are also times when scenes seem relatively over-exposed to me, with overly bright light overtaking the actors and making the surroundings seem very fake. Despite this, there is nice production design in the hotel, it has nice lavish furniture and it’s gorgeous. Overall though, the look is often middling – as well as the score. The score made no impression on me beyond being serviceable, besides a few scenes where it was infused with a ticking clock. Overall, like the writing and directing, the surrounding audio/visual set pieces, were mostly mediocre.
At the end of the film, I found myself less spellbound than when I had started it. It’s not horrible, but I don’t think it’s going to attract much repeat viewing from most people. If you’re a fan of Hathaway, Spencer, or witchy Halloween films in general, it’s definitely worth a watch. However, check your expectations before pressing play on this one. It’s an overall middling experience, starting as a delicious treat, an ending as a slightly bland trick.