Jacob Richardson | 14/12/2020
Sometimes fun, sometimes horrifying.
A young boy (Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents and moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) - only to discover that witches exist, and one has set her sights on him. Terrified that what happened to a young friend as a child might happen to her grandson, the grandmother spirits him away to a hotel run by Mr Stringer (Stanley Tucci). Little does she realise, the hotel is playing host to the annual witches convention, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). Like all witches, she hates children, and she has her sights set on the young boy and his grandmother as her next targets.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, The Witches is like a bubbling witches cauldron spewing a foul stench. Mixed ingredients, some of which are undeniably delightful, combine to create something not quite as appetising as the sum of its parts.
Let’s start with the kids. A trio of youngsters, led by Jahzir Bruno, is oftentimes delightful. Bruno is quite a gifted actor, and in times of excitement or terror brings a lot to the piece. But his performance shifts so radically between the two physicalities of his character, they are almost not the same person. His erstwhile compatriot Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) is often funny, but also frequently and frustratingly dim - ruining their chances at a reconciliation with his parents, or any other number of plot moving devices, through sheer stupidity that will have you shouting in your seat.
Hathaway goes BIG with her performance as the Grand High Witch. Talking with others in the screening I attended, this worked for some and didn’t for others. It’s a polarising performance, and while I enjoyed it and felt for the most part it worked, the crazy and often slipping accent, the sheer menace, and the sweeping theatre of it all can definitely be a turn off. It’s almost a little too much for a kids movie. The creak and crackle of her arms as they extend, the terror of her wide grin; one can imagine kids being scared to death.
The supporting cast is hit and miss too. Stanley Tucci is quite funny as Mr Stringer, but then Morgana Robinson as Mrs Jenkins seems to be acting in a panto production - playing to the back of the house. Visually too, the film is hit and miss, with the added technological advances since the original adaptation both adding to, and detracting from, the film. From a plot perspective, there’s nothing here you haven’t seen before (and not just because you’ve seen the original and so have seen this before), because the classic kids movies beats are hit aggressively in line with expectations.
The one undeniable bright spot is Octavia Spencer’s turn as the grandmother. 100% bought in, and hitting the exact tone you want the whole movie to have hit, she is a joy to watch and sustains this film even when the sheer variability of the rest of the piece threatens to overwhelm.
The Witches is a bit of a mess, but the bright spots are just enough to paper over the dull ones.