Children’s narratives are harder to approach. It’s more laborious to please a kid than an adult. Appropriately because the little ones only grasp the pure emotions, and unfiltered innocence rather than made up terror, gimmicks and sarcasm. Their narrative demands an aura of pure chastity, if you fake it, you can’t make it. Writers like Ronald Dahl had expertly delivered some best children narratives, one of which is The Witches.
Dahl’s The Witches has previously been adapted by Nicholas Roeg in 1990, which became an instant blockbuster of its time and was warmly cherished by audiences of all age brackets. The 2020 version of the same story directed by Robert Zemeckis is released over the internet due to the ongoing pandemic situation. It is clean and crisp in its approach, complemented ably by a spectacular cast but does the film succeed in causing the same effect on its audience, as the story did in 1990?
The Witches begins with a projecting slideshow supported by a narration, that sets the basic theme of the film, Witches. A group of children seated in the audience are told about these supernatural creatures. The voice speaks, “Witches are Real. As real as the rock in your shoe. Witches hate Children. They get pleasure from squashing a child.”
For a children flick, the opening sounds sort of cynical but quickly the narrator takes the audience, on and off-screen, back to his own childhood where he first encountered a Witch. We see the narrator, Charlie (Jahzir Bruno), as a small teenage boy who has recently lost his parents in a car accident. Charlie is taken into care by his grandma Agatha (Octavia Spencer). Little did Charlie know about her grandma, that she is a herbal doctor and shares a past encounter with a Witch. When Charlie sees a witch in a grocery store and narrates the same to Agatha, she gets blazingly alarmed. She tells Charlie all about her childhood friend, Alice who was converted into a chicken by one of the witches.
“Alice did something no child should ever do. She took candy from a stranger.”
Charlie is first sceptical about this whole story, but his own encounter with one of these creatures forces him to believe in it. Witches give you chocolates and turn children into animals. Agatha tells him that once a witch comes into someone’s life, it never leaves. Thus they need to find shelter and protection for them. Grandma takes Charlie to Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel, Alabama. While the reason to go to this particular hotel sounds vague and unrealistic, Agatha speaks in support of it.
“There ain’t nothing but rich white folks. Witches only prey on the poor. The overlooked, the kids they think nobody gonna make a fuss about if they go missing.”
When Charlie and Agatha reach this grand hotel, Charlie finds out about a massive coven of witches who have assembled to discuss their plan, “To turn every brat into rats.” This convention is headed by The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) who has coined a magic potion, drops of which quickly transforms people into rats. Charlie and another white kid in the hotel, become their first victim. Charlie and two other humans are turned into rats as he calls out for help from Grandma Agatha, who further pursues a journey to help the kids and fight off these savage witches.
Too Much Information and Not Enough Plot
The Witches is dialogue-heavy throughout and tends to over-explain itself sometimes. All necessary and unnecessary information is highly unreliable and if you just try to scrutinise, it seems like no one really knows what they are even speaking. Like Agatha gives Witches targeting only the low profile kids, but these witches in fact choose the grandest hotel and target the high-class rich kids as well, and even plan to do so in future.
Agatha’s reasoning on why they are leaving for this hotel is itchy and forced too, as there isn’t any real motivation in the film, except her own dialogue to support the cause. A similar instance could be seen in the story of her childhood friend Alice, who was turned into a chicken by the witches. But in present time, Witches now turn children into rats, without giving any proper reasoning to choose “rats” as the transformation creature. Is it just because it rhymes with “brats” and is easy to squash?
The Witches sure do have the technical brilliance and a spectacular cast to support the performance, yet it falls flat on the script level. The plot gets thinner and thinner as the story moves forward. Even in the most dramatic scene, the story fails to create tension that could lead to a lack of engrossment among the viewers. It doesn’t create any feelings or emotions and keeps playing on its own unnecessary rhythm. Most of these tensions are created by words, and words don’t support each other either. Visually the 2020 version of the film is brilliant but narratively it fails to touch the standard set by the 90’s one.
One of the drawbacks of 2020, The Witches is the lack of a strong negative performance. Performances that are played out, against the character makes a more lasting impact than the grand loud one. Anne Hathaway’s actions and dialect looks all made up and she gives a very representative performance of her career. The makeup of the witches look funnier rather than scary if it wasn’t intentional.
It is fun, gripping and neat. It might attract the audience, especially the kids but anyone who has experienced the older version, will not and never be wooed by this one. Anyone looking for some soothing story with some simple narrative supported by magic, The Witches is surely going to make your day.
The film is streaming on HBO Max. (Not Available for Asian Region).
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