The Witches (2020)
This remake from Robert Zemeckis employs, but doesn't commit to interesting interpretive changes
Roald Dahl’s impact on children’s stories is something that has not gotten the proper appreciation it deserves. Dahl was able to craft a unique set of original stories that had a very special tone that seemed akin to that of the Grimm’s fairytales. The ability and encouragement of a child’s imagination and values was encapsulated in symbolism, all the while trusting young readers to cope with dark themes in his stores. Dahl’s work has been adapted for the screen multiple times, with remakes of some of his most famous work “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and most recently “The Witches.”
The Witches (2020) is a remake of the 1990 film as well as an adaptation of the 1983 book. We follow the life of our unnamed Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno), who after being orphaned in a car crash, moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) in 1960s Alabama. However, our protagonist and his grandmother believe they are being hunted by real-life witches, who have a mantra to hunt and kill all children. Thus they attempt to flee to a beachside hotel, only to find that they might have walked into the hands of their enemies.
The film is directed by legendary filmmaker Robert Zemeckis, who no one can blame for not being ambitious with his work. It is true that this turn into the remake trend is a bit worrying for fans of Zemeckis, accustomed to his risking anything original, but rest assured that he still retains a creative eye. This version of The Witches is also co-written by blockbuster TV creator Kenya Barris and Oscar-winner Guillermo Del Toro (the film also produced by Del Toro’s university and filmmaking friend Alfonso Cuaron). To have such an agglomeration of creative minds behind the camera is certainly encouraging when adapting Dahl’s work, and this film adaptation doesn’t necessarily disappoint.
One clear change from previous adaptation of The Witches is making our main character and his family black. This changes certain dynamics throughout the film while not necessarily changing the events from the book. As a result, the eternal struggle of our protagonist’s grandmother against the witches takes on an added dimension of a cultural struggle. The more western perspectives of witches and their magic is being contrasted with the voodoo and spiritual practices that we see grandma employ. The relationship of witches and children also changes with Zemeckis’ choice in casting. The pursuit to exterminate and exploit young black children and their bodies by white villains certainly brings about a deep interpretation of this story. But despite these opportunities of exploring racial dynamics within the story itself, Zemeckis only seems to mention these aspects, but not delve into them. This feels like a wasted opportunity, as Zemeckis looks at these racial tensions timidly, employing a method of subtle gestures and winks instead.
While the 1990’s The Witches took on the appeal of a mid-budget film, Zemeckis is certainly able to turn the tone of this remake into that of a big blockbuster. This is not only thanks to the big marquee names of Anne Hathaway and Spencer, but also through Zemeckis’ employment of seeming blockbuster cliches. These include the use of a certain structure, such as a final boss-showdown, that are not in the book. This change in tone also includes scenes seemingly crafted to be crowd pleasers or to be seen in 3-D, but since theaters are largely shuttered due to the global pandemic, its ambitious reaches fall onto smaller screens that don’t do them full justice. Because of this blockbuster switch, I was expecting the scary aspects to be much more toned down in order to make the film ‘kid-friendly.’ However, I was delighted to see that there were still some chilling aspects that are risky enough to alienate some smaller viewers, but appreciative of the source material from Dahl. This is not to say that the film is scarier or darker than the original 1990, version, in fact it is slightly toned down from it. I was surprised to see the original ending from the book make it in the film, which the 1990 version had disappointingly changed to be lighter and predictable.
The problem with adapting many of Dahl’s works is that many of his dark themes are frequently filtered by Hollywood in order to make their films more amenable to audiences. This was not the case with the 1990 version of The Witches, which fully doubled down on the terrible images conjured up in Dahl’s pages with some spectacular practical effects that still hold up to this day. Zemeckis has always leaned towards the use of CGI in his films, seeing it as the future of creative storytelling. In his version of The Witches, Zemeckis does choose to employ more CGI for the more fantastical elements of the film, and this particular works to his benefit in the latter half of the film where we are mostly following mice. However, this heavy reliance on visual effects also begins to lend The Witches a certain air of artificiality, of being clearly filmed in a studio and with multiple greenscreens. This distances viewers from the story, so that we are only taking it in as a fable and not seeing our characters as our surrogates. This both compliments the construction of the novel, but fails to utilize the greatest tools of film, whose primary objective should be: immersion.
In the end, this new version of The Witches proves to be an interesting interpretation. Certainly the added dimensions of using a black cast are very intriguing. However, Zemeckis never fully commits to deeply exploring the new aspects that he sprinkles in this adaptation. This makes for a film that, while certainly enjoyable, falls a bit too neatly into the Hollywood blockbuster mold.