‘The Witches’ (2020) | HBO Max | Patrick Beatty Reviews

Directed By: Robert Zemeckis

Written By: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro

Streaming on HBO Max: October 22, 2020
Runtime: 105 Minutes

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, and Stanley Tucci

The Witches bewitched itself with awful CGI, a narrative that has as much heart as the titular Witch herself, and tonal shifts that feel like a curse that will never end. With a phenomenal cast attached, one would think the filmmakers would allow for their talents to soar and put a new spin on a beloved story. That would be the case, and very much could if it had a director that knew what the tone of the overall project is.

Certain parts of The Witches border on a nightmare-ready journey, specifically the witches themselves, which I would say is not suitable for younger children – it gets pretty dark. At first, I was intrigued by this idea of a new take aimed toward the adult audience. Although the design of the witches themselves, with their vulture-like appearances, has an intriguing visual appeal, the over-done CGI takes all seriousness of their threat away. They have elements of being terrifying, but those elements are held back by this constraint of trying to be kid-friendly. In the end, we end up with a snoozefest of a movie that doesn’t know who its audience is. It’s a rough beginning, followed by a mediocre middle, and then finished with a flatlined ending. The Witches tries to balance itself with both audiences in mind, but the outcome of that is a toxic potion with irreversible effects. 

Throughout the entirety of the flick, there are opportunities that Zemeckis could (should) have taken to expand the lore of the witches without being bogged down by exposition and animations that offer no engagement to the viewer. If not overcrowded on the screen with cheesy effects, then we are to listen to a bunch of play-by-play exchanges. Not to mention, sometimes, it was hard to understand what the infamous Grand High Witch was saying because of an accent so forcibly thick. Was that a directorial decision or an acting decision on behalf of Hathaway herself? It’s moments like that which take viewers out when it feels like a chore to invest and follow along in the first place. 

A question I found myself asking throughout the film was, what are the stakes? Nothing feels of immediate danger. For example, there’s an animal introduced when The Grand High Witch has her first relevant introduction. That said animal, which I expected to be trouble for the protagonists at some point in the second act, does not have much to do until the end. It’s a wasted introduction. There are too many air-bubbles where something of interest would have helped the film do a better job of conveying its ideas. If nothing is at stake, then why bother watching these surface-leveled characters meander?

Overall, I think this is not the best attempt at bringing the book to the screen. It feels like this is another cash grab of a soulless project nobody asked for and a weak attempt to entice the younger generation to a beloved novel. It tries too hard to be one thing, then attempts to be another. In other words: it’s a mess – which I find surprising as Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón’s names are attached as producers; del Toro also being credited as a writer. Both of these filmmakers are known for their character work and attention to detail. At least the first adaptation had heart and fun with the source material. 2020’s rendition of the story has no heart and smells like trouble was brewing in its cauldron from the get-go. 

Rating: 2 out of 5.

I give The Witches 2/5 stars.

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