HBO Max, Warner Brothers’ new streaming service, has had few original films thus far. “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” is one of the first original movies on the $15.99 a month service. Directed by Academy Award winning director Robert Zemeckis, produced by Oscar winners Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro and starring Academy Award winners Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer, you would expect this film to be a mastery of the art form. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
There are many issues with this film. To start, the writing is simply not good. This film is written by Zemeckis, del Toro and relatively new film writer, Kenya Barris. Barris has mostly written comedies so far, but we know that Zemeckis and del Toro are fantastic writers. Both have made films that are world renowned for their scripts and plot structure, such as the legendary “Back to the Future,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Forrest Gump” and “The Shape of Water.” Thus, it is surprising to see them both have writing credit for a script that really struggles.
One of the main problems with the script is that it doesn’t have a consistent thematic message. At times, it feels like the film is a commentary on racism, then it shifts toward a commentary on classism and it ends with seemingly no thematic message at all. The whole film is full of plot devices and poor decision making by its characters. Mrs. Hansen’s (Octavia Spencer) lack of authoritative decision-making is probably the most questionable, especially based on how she was set up during the first act of the film. This lack of cohesion and poor dialogue is part of the reason why the film struggles.
Another reason why this movie struggles is due to Hathaway’s performance. Spencer is solid in this film, though her character isn’t written the best, and the child actors are good but not great. The performance Hathaway gives in the film is one of the campiest in recent memory. She plays The Grand High Witch in a theatrical and over the top manner, complete with an unrealistic Eastern European accent. Now this performance may have been played as a comedic one, but the character’s dialogue lacks humor. This leads me to believe that Hathaway is playing this as a theatrical but non-comedic performance. If so, she fails to accomplish that. The accent is the main reason why she fails; it just really detracts from her performance. If she played the role with her normal accent, but kept the theatrics, it would be significantly better.
“The accent is the main reason why she fails; it just really detracts from her performance. If she played the role with her normal accent, but kept the theatrics, it would be significantly better.”Zachary Wisnefsky (author) on Anne Hathaway’s performance.
So, with the struggling script and out of place lead performance, this film fails to be a successful one. However, even if it was fantastic at accomplishing its goals, I am not sure if it would have captured an audience. It’s a PG Halloween film but it isn’t a stereotypical kids movie. There are several scenes that would be quite terrifying to children, due to the possibly disturbing transformations and character designs. Because of that, I can’t see many kids wanting to see this movie. That being said, parents are the ones who put on somewhat “scary” films for their children at this time of year, rather than the kids themselves. However, this isn’t a film that adults would enjoy. It lacks the subtle adult-directed humor that many successful children’s films have, making it probably a boring watch for older audience members. There were several moments throughout the film where small jokes could have been inserted, but the movie failed to capitalize on them.
All that being said, there are some redeeming qualities to the film. Zemeckis, though he hasn’t made a critically or financially successful film in quite some time, is still a fantastic director. The shot composition in the film is solid and there are some sequences that look fantastic. On top of this, the film is full of magnificent visual effects. Being a fantasy film, the visual effects aren’t meant to have a high degree of realism, but a lot of the environments and creatures are well-designed and executed.
Still, those positives fail to make up for the struggles in script, story and Hathaway’s performance, making this film fail to earn a recommendation.