Robert Zemeckis Struggles to Capture Roald Dahl’s Charm in ‘The Witches’

Anyone who is adapting a Roald Dahl book into film has an unenviable task ahead of them. There’s a special magic to the author’s voice that is extremely difficult to capture in other mediums—and most attempts to do so fall flat. Unfortunately, the new Robert Zemeckis adaptation of Dahl’s book The Witches is yet another failure in this regard.

In the movie, the protagonist, an unnamed young boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) becomes orphaned after his parents die in a car crash, and he is sent to live with his kind-hearted Grandma (Octavia Spencer). When the boy encounters a witch at his local supermarket, Grandma decides to move them into a hotel for protection—not realising that they have inadvertently stepped into one of the most dangerous hotspots for witches in the country.

What Zemeckis forgets about Dahl’s witches is just how terrifying they were on paper. Though the children in his books sometimes have a caring adult figure in their vicinity, they often innately understand that most adults are not to be trusted and there is no solace to be found in authority figures. As it turns out, the witches of this world look like nice, normal women. But in reality, they’re supernatural beings who hate children and are intent on destroying them by any means necessary.

A still from 'The Witches' (2020). The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) is shown in mid-shot, centre frame, flanked by 5 other witches. Each of the ladies wears flamboyant and expensive looking clothing in bright colours in 1950s and 1960s styles. The Grand High Witch wears a Houndstooth jacket with high black collar and elbow length black gloves. She has on a large, wide-brimmed Black sinamay hat and bauble earrings. Her hair is platinum blonde and in a bobbed 1950s style, her lips are red and you can see scars on either side of her lips. She holds  a pair of sunglasses in her left hand.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Witches would trap children in paintings until they grew old and died in them. Or they would transform children into pheasants, only to have the children’s own parents shoot them during hunting season. The kinds of torture they inflicted clearly extend beyond just the monstrous and violent but were (and still are!) terrifying to read about due to their more existential nature. But rather than wholly embracing this dark tone, Zemeckis instead opts for a very rote, predictable action-adventure movie that presents children with little to no actual thrills.

As the film’s main antagonist, the Grand High Witch, Anne Hathaway opts for an extremely camp performance, putting on a vaguely Eastern European accent and acting with an excessive amount of flourish. However, set against the otherwise dull backdrop of the rest of the film, Hathaway looks extremely out of place. To her credit, however, the actress also appears to be the only person in the entire movie who seems to be having any fun at all. The rest of the highly underwritten characters are performed by mostly disinterested actors, with Stanley Tucci as a perturbed butler practically sleepwalking through his performance. Perhaps the only character who looks half alive is Bruno’s. Still, an abrupt increase in energy midway through the movie in a formerly lethargic character is precipitated by no identifiable logic in its screenplay.

A still from 'The Witches' (2020). A young unnamed boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) stands with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer). She places her gloved hand on his shoulder as he talks to a hotel butler (Stanley Tucci), who is bending down to address him at the correct height. The young boy is Black, with short cropped hair and is wearing a plaid blazer and bookbag over his shoulder. His grandmother is also Black, in her 50s wearing her Sunday best 1950s purple dress and cropped jacket, she wears a hat and has a white flower on it. The butler is white, also in his 50s, with a receeding hairline and pencil moustache. He wears a smart pinstripe three piece suit.
Warner Bros. Pictures

Ultimately, the entire movie felt as if someone had read the Wikipedia page plot summary of the book and attempted to write a scripted adaptation around that. There are a few pitiful attempts to give the dialogue some flourish; jokes are spliced in here and there, but none are grounded in the plot or characters and fall completely flat. From a filmmaking standpoint, there’s also little camera movement that helps the viewer follow the story. Because of this lack of visual information, there’s a heavy reliance on the movie’s narrator, an older Bruno (Chris Rock). The characters also repeat essential information to each other ad nauseam, as if the movie’s audience of children will be too incompetent to follow along without active reinforcement.

Reading Dahl’s books as a kid felt like being let in on a secret. Because of Dahl’s evident respect for his audience, his world-building and legitimate scares came with an intimacy unparalleled by most other children’s book authors. What’s missing from Zemeckis’ touch is that he often forgets this trust, instead opting for half-hearted action scenes instead of genuine charm and cleverness.

The Witches is available to stream on HBO Max in the USA, and available on VOD in the UK now

by Keno Katsuda

Keno is a writer and freelancer in the film industry currently based in Tokyo, but she considers London home. Her favourite movie is The Big Short. She believes Alita: Battle Angel deserves a sequel and that the correct ranking for the Mission: Impossible franchise from best to worst is: 4,6,5,3,1,2. You can argue with her on Twitter or Letterboxd.

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