Unfortunately, the magic of The Witches (2020) stops once its big spell is cast.
The Witches (2020) Synopsis
After an encounter with a scheming witch in a grocery store, an orphaned boy is taken by his grandmother to a swanky hotel for refuge. To their dismay, this lands them smack in the middle of a witches’ conference and a heinous plot to transform all children into squishable mice. Worse, the boy soon becomes an early victim and the prey of the head witch too.
Unlike The Craft: Legacy, I remember when I watched the first movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. It was on Singaporean TV in the mid-90s. I greatly loved the show.
Why did I love it? Oh, Anjelica Huston, of course. The magic and the wicked glee too. And the truly, truly hysterical climax.
This Robert Zemeckis remake retains the darker flesh of that classic masterpiece, and included several character updates to suit modern tastes. On that, I have to say the macabre delight in the first half of the show was sinfully delightful. Anne Hathaway, in a role positively perfect for her, was sheer indulgence to watch too.
Once the true adventure begins, though, the magic steadily seeps from the show; this, despite an extended climax. Regarding this, I can only attribute it to a lack of, what’s a good word, abandonment? A case of treading the lines too carefully?
To give an example, the all-important dining room scene completely lacks the mayhem and implied gore in the 90s version. Even the transformation effects are markedly subdued and underplayed.
Why was this so? I guess it’s to avoid controversy, this being a movie targeted at younger viewers, after all. Which then makes it truly ironic that …
Criticism by Disability Advocates
As much as I hate to, The Witches (2020) cannot be reviewed without a mention of the criticism rained onto it by disability advocates.
Specifically, how the movie demonizes limb differences and so on.
To be clear, I wouldn’t have sensed this had I not read the news reports beforehand. After the show, though, I realised, yeah. However much I want to treat such a movie as pure fiction, productions targeting impressionable audiences need to be more careful with unspoken and unintended messages.
But I’d say this too. Roald Dahl wrote this story in the 80s and like many other works from past eras, it was conceptualised in the ambiance of the times. With certain (newer) sensibilities and taboos openly disregarded.
It’s not excusable, of course. To a great extent, I felt Zemeckis and his crew ought to have anticipated the negative responses too, given Dahl’s novel was hardly free of controversy.
In the end, I feel it’s a question of whether some literary works are no longer appropriate for current consumption, however beloved they once were. This itself is a question that feels “wrong” too, I’m sure you know what I mean. But it’s a thorny subject that entertainment producers increasingly have to address.