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"THE WITCHES"
(2020) (Jahzir Bruno, Anne Hathaway) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Horror: A boy and his grandmother try to stop a witch leader and her coven from turning children into easier to kill mice.
PLOT:

It's 1968 and a never named 8-year-old kid -- listed in the credits as Hero Boy (JAHZIR BRUNO) -- suddenly finds himself orphaned and now living with his tough but loving Grandma (OCTAVIA SPENCER) in her Alabama home. For a while, and understandably so, he's in a depressed funk, but his grandma gets him out of that, partially with the help of a pet mouse that he names Daisy.

But just as he's getting better, they realize a witch is after him, and since all witches hate children, Grandma pulls some strings and gets them a room at the posh Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel where she figures they'll be safe and hotel manager Mr. Stringer (STANLEY TUCCI) welcomes them.

Unbeknownst to any of them, a local meeting of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the ballroom there is really a cover for a meeting of witches ruled by the Grand High Witch (ANNE HATHAWAY). Like the rest of them, she hates children and plots to have witches open candy stores around the country where such goodies will be laced with a potion that will turn children into far more easily squishable mice.

She showcases what she's plotting by nabbing the always hungry Bruno (CODIE-LEI EASTICK) and turning him into a mouse, something that shocks Hero Boy who's hiding under the stage. But his pet mouse, who's actually Mary (voice of KRISTIN CHENOWETH), another human who's been mousified by witches, saves Bruno.

With Hero Boy then turned into one as well, it's up to the trio of mice and Grandma to foil the Grand High Witch's plan.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10

Let's face it, the world can be a scary place, especially for children. Sometimes that's simply due to a kid's imagination -- I remember being particularly afraid of extraterrestrials at some point around first or second grade -- but at others, it's based on real-life horrors. Nowadays that includes mass shootings, cyberbullying, and, of course, COVID-19.

Parents and older siblings can help allay some of those fears, but sometimes it takes observing a similarly aged "David" taking on the big bad "Goliath" to see that kindness can conquer hate and good can vanquish evil. And while such observation sometimes occurs in real-life, it usually happens in fiction that can arrive in any number of forms.

Author Roald Dahl seemed to understand this and whether he was simply tapping into that philosophy or working out his own childhood traumas, he made quite a name for himself writing books featuring kids who deal with or defeat adult villains. Those ranged from the fairly benign but still unsettling dangers found in the likes of "Matilda," "James and the Giant Peach" and "Charlie and The Chocolate Factory" to outright peril in "The Witches" where the titular beings seek out to kill children.

The latter, originally published in 1983, was first adapted for the big screen in 1990 (starring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch) and now returns thirty years later in a film of the same name where Anne Hathaway gets the meaty part to sink her decidedly sharper and greater than normal in number teeth into.

I may have seen the original flick (although I don't recall a thing about it if I did) but was looking forward to this remake, simply due to Robert Zemeckis directing it. He's the filmmaker behind financial and critical hits such as "Romancing the Stone," "Cast Away" "Back to the Future," "Contact," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" and "Forrest Gump," all of which I loved.

More recently, however, his films haven't seemed as special, with "Flight," "Allied," and "Welcome to Marwen" not exactly becoming household movie titles. So, as I sat down to watch his latest, I wondered whether that recent mediocre streak would continue or if we'd get Zemeckis of old.

Alas, and despite the subject matter that obviously provides plenty of artistic, special effects and overall entertainment potential, the trend of recent keeps on rolling. His latest isn't bad, it just doesn't feel special.

With some updating here and there, the story -- adapted by Zemeckis and co-scribes Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro -- pretty much follows the original novel where a boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) ends up orphaned and goes off to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). Having seen what a witch did to her childhood friend long ago, she's all too aware of their disdain for kids. Once she learns one has been sniffing around her grandson, she whisks him away to the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel in hopes of laying low there among the rich white folk who never lose their kids to witches.

Unbeknownst to them, a coven of witches has also checked into the hotel -- under the guise of belonging to the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children -- where Hathaway's leader character reveals her worldwide child-ending plan but first tells her assembly to literally let their hair down, and remove their gloves and shoes.

All of which reveals their bald and wig-irritated heads, three fingers with sharp claws, and stump feet with just one clawed toe. Oh, and big nostrils to smell out the kiddos which is what she does regarding our never named kid protagonist (listed only as "Hero Boy" in the credits) who's hiding beneath her stage.

She ends up turning him into a mouse -- just as she did to another boy (Codie-Lei Eastick) moments before -- and with the rest tries to stomp him into oblivion. From that point on, and with help from his grandma and another human who's been mousified (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth), our Hero Boy sets out to defeat the witch and her coven.

All of which is fine in concept but ends up rather blasť in execution as the film ends up stuck in something akin to a cinematic no man's land. It's likely too scary for little kids -- Hathaway's witch can turn her smile into something akin to Bruce the Shark from "Finding Nemo" -- who will otherwise be drawn to the kid hero characters and mouse-based shenanigans that will elicit thoughts of "Stuart Little," "Mouse Hunt" and "Ratatouille."

Unlike many of Zemeckis' greatest hits, however, it doesn't have enough material to engage and captivate older viewers. Some might appreciate Hathaway hamming it up -- and then some -- in the scary-meets-campy part, and Spencer is good even if it seems like she's played this sort of part around a thousand times. Chris Rock is heard as the narrator, a somewhat odd choice because he sounds like Chris Rock which will likely distract and make you wonder why the comedian is voicing the part.

In the end, it will certainly be yet another example to kids that the world is a scary place (albeit one that can be handled with enough bravery, determination, pluck, and smarts), but I doubt it's going to cast a memorable spell on many viewers. Decent but nothing special, "The Witches" rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed October 20, 2020 / Posted October 23, 2020


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