Review – Which Witch is Which? (“The Witches”)

Really? Was the 1990 version of The Witches so awful that a remake was necessary? The answer? Uh. . .NO! This is just another attempt to ruin a perfectly good, previously made movie, for no other reason than to remake by adding new CGI effects, a strange script, and actors-of-the-week.

*

Originally, Guillermo DelToro wanted to remake The Witches into a stop-motion animated film in 2008, then Robert Zemekis wanted to co-write it with DelToro and direct it in 2018. The 2020 theatrical release was delayed this year (covid), but HBOMax picked it up. If you’ve seen the 1990 version, the story is about the same, but with an African-American lead cast this time around. It’s the 60’s in Alabama, and Jahzir Kadeem Bruno plays Charlie Hansen, a recently traumatized young boy whose parents were killed in a car accident. He’s taken in by his kindly grandmother, Agatha (Octavia Spencer), who has an encyclopedic knowledge on witches, having seen her childhood friend turned into a chicken.

Anyway, to get Charlie out of his funk, Agatha gives him a cute little pet mouse and takes him on a vacation to a luxurious Alabama seaside hotel. Once there, Charlie discovers that a convention of witches is also there, led by the Grand High Witch herself, Lilith (Anne Hathaway) who has super-strength, can fly, and has a floating German accent. She instructs all her fellow witches to kill all the children of the world by using potion #86, a blue liquid that will turn them into mice. She demonstrates this by turning Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick), a chubby little English boy into a fat mouse.

Charlie is caught, turned into a mouse, and then finds out his pet mouse Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth with a Southern-fried accent) can actually speak! As mice, all three contact Agatha who comes up with a plan: steal a bottle of #86 and reverse engineer it, but that fails. Next, Charlie suggests pouring it into the pea soup at the witch’s dinner that night. Does the brave little mouse find doing this exceedingly dangerous and fraught with death around every corner? Nope! It’s super easy; barely an inconvenience! All the witches go POP into mice, except for Lilith who wants her revenge on Agatha.

In a surprise move, the original book ending is kept this time around (I’m sure Roald Dahl would be happy) as the film closes with a satisfying, albeit silly, brushstroke. If you’re a fan of the original movie, this movie will make you wince in certain places and SYH in others. Yes, the screenplay, by director Zemekis, DelToro, and Kenya Barris (Shaft, Little) does a nice job with the plot twist, but the real crime is the SPFX and leaving out key elements explored with such sinister delight in the other movie.

Like Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”, and that means doing horrible, CGI effects with Hathaway’s witch face, those awful mice that look like rejects from those Chipmunk movies, and giving hotel manager Stanley Tucci such a boring character to play with. He’s better than that! Aside from Hathaway mugging and chewing the scenery, Spencer and newbie Eastick were the only credible actors in this. Tucci was wasted, and the roles of Bruno’s parents, so deliciously highlighted in the 1990 film, are largely ignored here.

Yeah, it’s just another remake that didn’t NEED to be remade. However, as much as I didn’t like it, I’ll give credit where it’s due, and that’s with the direction. Zemekis (the Back to the Future trilogy) hasn’t lost his touch in creative nonsense in wielding a camera. If you never saw the 1990 movie, this fantasy would be a visual treat with the eye-popping CG effects, the spinning camera moves, and his knowledge on how to hold on to the action to deliver the maximum impact. This movie also features Chris Rock as a narrator, and a religious flavor sprinkled in that wasn’t in the original film.

**Now streaming exclusively on HBOMax

The Witches (1990)

Based on Roald Dahl’s bizarre book (and let’s face it, the man writes nothing but weird stories), this movie caused quite an uproar with the subject matter, Jim Henson’s frightening SPFX, and those horrifically ugly witches! And NO CGI, people!

*

Shot mostly in Norway and one year before the untimely deaths of both Henson and Dahl, screenwriter Allan Scott kept close to Dahl’s book, except for the ending, but more on that later. We start with kindly old Helga (Mai Zetterling), a retired witch hunter who’s regaling her grandson, Luke (Jasen Fisher) with wild and apparently true tales of witches in a sort of narration/exposition/textbook lesson. But after Luke’s parents are killed, they take off for holiday at a posh English seaside hotel run by fastidious manager, Mr. Stringer (Rowan Atkinson).

But little do they know this hotel is playing host to a convention of witches in disguise, under the leadership of Eva Ernst (Angelica Huston), the Grand High Witch. While goofing around, Luke accidentally overhears their diabolical plans: kill every child in England by turning them into mice! He even sees a demonstration at their meeting when a chubby kid named Bruno (Charlie Potter) is transformed into a mouse (using both real mice and puppets) after he’s fed Potion #86. Making matters worse, Luke is captured and is shrunk down to a mouse as well. Luckily, Luke & Bruno manage to crawl back to Helga’s hotel room and tell her what’s going on.

A crazy plan is concocted where Luke is to steal a bottle of Potion #86 and somehow get it into the food when all the witches are dining that night! Through sheer determination, dumb luck, and fantastic coincidences, Luke gets a tiny bottle into the soup and walaa! Problem solved! All the witches become mice and are killed, and Luke… well, therein lies the controversy. The book ending has Luke remain a mouse for only nine more years, dying along with his already ill grandmother. Dismal, huh? The happy movie ending has Luke becoming a boy again.

Roald Dahl saw the positive movie ending and was furious, hating that director Roeg had changed his original ending. Roeg had filmed BOTH versions and showed them to test audiences, but the happier version won out! Dahl demanded that his name be removed entirely from the credits and threaten to publicity campaign against the film, but was calmed down by Jim Henson. When watching the movie, you can see why; the ‘happy’ ending is tacked-on, rushed, and makes no sense.

All in all, this movie rocks. Nicholas Roeg directs this movie like a madman, going for absurd camera angles like wild floor-to-ceiling and obscene cartoony fish-eye shots, reminiscent of Joe Dante’s work on Twilight Zone: The Movie. Just look at the convention scene with Angelica Huston revealing her REAL witch face! THAT is a comical nightmare that pushes the PG rating boundary. And Huston, with that glorious and way over-the-top German accent, is jaw-dropping in this role and should have gotten some award. Young Fisher is good, as is Augustus Gloop’s cousin, Charlie Potter, who is always eating! And don’t forget Rowan Atkinson, who can elevate any film’s comic tone to all-new levels.

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