In recent years, CGI remakes of classic family movies have become a dominant trend, a trend which The Witches is unmistakably a part of, given that it is just as much a remake of the 1990 Nicolas Roeg adaptation as it is a direct adaptation of the Roald Dahl novel itself. Taking this into consideration, both the failures and successes of The Witches are largely the failures and successes of this mold it aligns itself with, and so, as is generally the case with these films, it finds itself burdened by an aura of lifelessness given off by its stylistic commitment to being a manufactured product, even if it is partially redeemed by the entertainment value it achieves. What sets The Witches apart from its contemporaries is its source material, which is far more difficult to adapt than first meets the eye. Despite the deserved criticism directed towards this this new vision, as well as the praise which has been heaped upon its predecessor, a case can be made that the former traverses these adaptational difficulties with greater ease than the latter.
For those unfamiliar, the true foundation of Dahl’s The Witches is the mythology, in which witches are really demons in human form; its narrative of a young orphan’s encounter with witches during a stay at a hotel chiefly exists to show the mythology in action, and both films are fairly faithful to the plot. The recent update is chiefly helmed by Robert Zemeckis as director, with Guillermo del Toro and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris aiding him as co-writers, and Anne Hathaway starring as the leader of the witches. Now, understanding why Dahl’s work is so difficult to adapt requires some knowledge of the writer. Dahl was habitually repulsed by cinematic adaptations of his work, which arguably says more about him than it does about the adaptations. Dahl’s body of work attests to his being more comfortable in the written word where a story can take its time and get lost in itself. However, he was far from fluent in the visceral language of cinema. It makes sense that the best Dahl-inspired films are, as a general rule, those which allow themselves more freedom in deviating from the text, and so it is surprising that filmmakers continue to view fidelity to Dahl’s vision as something to be aspired to, more than ever in this case.
As beloved as Dahl’s works are, his reputation as a problematic figure is no secret either, and The Witches is, of all his children’s works, the clearest window into his uglier side. It’s not hard to see the central premise of female demons dwelling in the public as an outlet for the misogyny which continually resurfaced in Dahl’s work, and one could just as easily observe within this social fear undercurrents of xenophobia, antisemitism, etc. The Witches will always be an ugly film because the ugliness of the witches is such a central element to the text, and the ugliness of the witches comes from the inherent ugliness of social paranoia towards marginalized groups. Thus, the struggle to adapt The Witches is also the struggle to redeem it. The 1990 film takes a few steps in this direction: first of all, it subverts Dahl’s narrative with its inclusion of a good witch, suggesting the possibility of an ascension from the demonic to the angelic; this is one of the film’s best inventions, even if it comes at the expense of the tragic weight the story’s original conclusion holds (an orphan celebrating the knowledge he will die young because he does not want to experience the loss of a family member again is the most profound element of Dahl’s story; that the 2020 film included it while the 1990 film would not is impressive and worth acknowledging). More important is how its visuals demonstrate how the exposure of these women as demons is made more palatable to audiences by coding the disguised witches as upper-middle class. Within this coding is a subtle suggestion that the path to redeeming The Witches is through translating Dahl’s pathological fear of the opposite sex into a fear of the more real danger posed by those within positions of socioeconomic power. Among the most commendable features of the 2020 film is that it picks up on this undercurrent and updates the iconography to reflect the increased vulnerability experienced when class divide intersects with racial divide, by making the child protagonist and his grandmother African Americans in 1960s Alabama. Following in the tradition of Rob Minkoff’s 2003 Haunted Mansion, though, the film does as much as it can to maintain its function as light entertainment by avoiding the subject of racism outright, which is probably for the best, as this is something The Witches clearly could not do well if it wanted to.
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This brings us back to where we started: a discussion of The Witches in terms of style and tone, all borrowed from what is culturally adjacent to it, and this may be best understood by contrasting it with its predecessor. The 1990 film, in keeping with Roeg’s style, is filled with hand-held point-of-view shots filmed at a low angle, so as to simulate the perspective of its child characters. Viewers are never allowed the safety that comes from being a detached observer, but are rather forced into the experiences of the characters on a personal level. Zemeckis’ more smooth formalistic style in the 2020 version benefits from being easier on the eyes, and so a case could be made for the superiority of either stylistic choice. Yet as discussed, whatever The Witches gains from its desire to provide computer-polished eye candy is hampered by the impersonal corporate feeling which results from this approach. Formulaic art will consistently feel condescending towards its more complex viewership, talking at them instead of being in conversation with them, and it’s this element of hollow condescension that makes The Witches so incapable of handling racism with more depth than it does.
Yet when it comes to providing entertainment, The Witches receives a passing grade: the film delivers a decently fun adventure with a spooky atmosphere, within which Hathaway steals the show. It’s a performance delivered with an understanding of the Grand High Witch’s appeal and her ability to simultaneously embody both the seductive and the repulsive to such extremes; this contrast parallels the seductive yet deadly nature of wealth, as the film’s mise-en-scène is dominated by luxurious items. Given this, the dispensability of The Witches’ thrills need not give viewers cause for lament, as not every film can be expected to attain the honor of becoming a cherished childhood movie memory. Sometimes even mediocre films can gain value through nostalgic appeal; the 1990 film is still loved in spite of its significant flaws, and perhaps the filter of nostalgia will allow this generation of child viewers to look back on Zemeckis’ 2020 film with similar fondness in years to come. However, the early 90s was in no shortage of legitimately good family films: Home Alone, Edward Scissorhands, Hook, The Addams Family, Jurassic Park. Meanwhile, in the context of the creative drought which surrounds it, the mediocrity of The Witches is far more concerning.
Julia Rhodes (@headphones_cat) is a video essayist and fledgling writer from Long Island, New York who operates the Essential Films YouTube channel. She currently spends her free time writing screenplays and watching the same 10 movies over and over again. Julia has seen her favorite film, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House, 16 times.