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Review: Anne Hathaway is a hoot, but this remake of ‘The Witches’ is an awfully thin brew

Anne Hathaway in the new film adaptation of "The Witches."
(Daniel Smith / HBO Max)

The last time Anne Hathaway opened her mouth as freakishly wide onscreen as she does in “The Witches,” she was unleashing a torrent of song and preparing for a date with Oscar in “Les Misérables.” In that movie, she played a downtrodden saint with Joan of Arc hair; in this one, she’s gone fully bald and fully evil as the Grand High Witch, a child-stomping demon-sorceress who shrieks and snarls in an accent somewhere between Greta Garbo and Natasha Fatale. She makes a ridiculous yet undeniably memorable monster, with the help of an ear-to-ear Glasgow smile that might remind you of the Joker or Ichi the Killer, at least until she opens up a sharp-toothed maw apparently on loan from Tom Hardy in “Venom.”

Hathaway isn’t the first actor to take on the role; that would be Anjelica Huston in Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel. The feverish brilliance of that movie had something to do with its shivery low-key realism, achieved with little more than canted camera angles, Jim Henson puppets and billows of green smoke. Mostly it was due to the spectacularly vampy Huston: Pouring haughty imperiousness and murderous glee into a bosom-heaving black dress, she gave a hoot of a star turn that also happened to be one of her most fully realized performances. Never condescending to the material or using overt comedy to blunt its spell, she slipped into Dahl’s unsettling, boldly preposterous story as if it were the most plausible thing in the world.

Hathaway is clearly aiming for a similar peak of lip-smacking, vowel-butchering serio-comic villainy here. If she can’t touch Huston in the role — and truth be told, I doubt anyone could — it isn’t for lack of trying in a movie that consistently strains for effect. Creaky, diverting and resignedly inferior, this latest adaptation of “The Witches,” directed by Robert Zemeckis (who co-wrote the script with Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro), tries to refresh Dahl’s story by moving it from Norway and England to 1967 Alabama. The tale is of course endlessly transplantable, because it posits that in just about every town and country in the world, witches are a very real and very dangerous threat.

Stanley Tucci and Octavia Spencer in the movie "The Witches."
(Warner Bros. Pictures)
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Leading seemingly ordinary lives yet possessing extraordinary magical powers, they devote every waking, scheming minute to ridding the world of children, whom they regard with visceral disgust. And as in Dahl’s novel, they have disquieting physical characteristics that they take great pains to conceal: sharp claws, toeless feet, enlarged nostrils that help them sniff out children (who reek of dog poop, naturally) and bald heads that they cover with hats and wigs. The story’s unnamed boy protagonist (played by Jahzir Bruno) learns all this from his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), who has become his guardian following his parents’ untimely deaths. An amateur healer and numerologist, Grandmother has a particular expertise in witches, having narrowly escaped being squelched by one herself as a young girl.

A flashback to that long-ago encounter, set in a small, impoverished Black community in the segregated South, provides a glimpse of the more interesting, politically subversive movie “The Witches” sometimes gestures at becoming. It’s both refreshing and pointed to see two Black actors cast as the movie’s heroic duo, and Spencer, though a bit young for her role, taps into her natural reserves of warmth, wit and steel. She makes this grandmother a steadying force, whether she’s using her own personal remedies (a little Four Tops, a little cornbread) to console her grieving grandson or spiriting him off to a hotel by the sea when a witch (Josette Simon) rears her head in their neighborhood.

That hotel is staffed by Black employees who attend to a conspicuously wealthy white clientele, one of several stabs at racial subtext that ultimately feel vague and underdeveloped here. At one point Grandma notes that “witches only prey on the poor, the overlooked,” an intriguing idea that flies in the face of the movie’s own narrative logic.

By a stroke of supremely bad luck, the Grand High Witch and her local Alabama minions, passing themselves off as a children’s charity, have descended on the same hotel for their annual witch confab (regrettably, no one calls it a coven-tion). And when the boy gets accidentally trapped in the ballroom where they hold their meeting, he becomes privy to all their horrific trade secrets, including a plot to transform all the children in the world — not just the poor, overlooked ones — into mice.

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Children are transformed into mice in the movie "The Witches."
(Warner Bros. Pictures)

The boy is soon discovered and “mouse-ified” himself, a process that occasions one of the picture’s showier, uglier visual effects, his human skin erupting in purple rodent pustules. It made me wonder what this long-gestating remake might have looked like in its originally intended form, as a stop-motion animation that del Toro once planned to direct. Whatever the case, in Zemeckis’ hands it has become something markedly different, inching into gaudy Tim Burton territory; like that equally erratic Hollywood fantasist, Zemeckis has trouble getting a handle on the story’s diabolically tricky tone and a tendency to pour on the grotesque visual flourishes in lieu of real vision or meaning.

“The Witches” is hardly his worst offender in this regard: It’s a model of restraint next to past motion-capture misfires like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” to say nothing of 2018’s dreadful (and dreadfully fascinating) “Welcome to Marwen.” The cute, cartoonish-looking CGI mice aside, most of the effects are lavished on Hathaway: In addition to her alarmingly stretchy jaws, she sports three-fingered hands, extendable arms and a single pointy, wiggly toe on each foot, so that with every shoeless step she appears to be flipping the camera the bird. Hathaway sinks her digital fangs into the role with visible relish: She levitates like Linda Blair, hisses like H.R. Giger’s Alien and dons more crazy blond wigs than Moira Rose. And she takes particular delight in dressing down the obsequious hotel manager — who, being played by Stanley Tucci, briefly calls to mind an alternate-dimension “The Devil Wears Prada” sequel in which a resurgent, homicidal Hathaway has effectively vaporized Meryl Streep.

Speaking of Streep: For much of this movie you may find yourself hoping that Zemeckis might somehow recapture the entrancingly macabre spirit of “Death Becomes Her,” still one of his greatest pictures and one of the few in which his flair for ever more outlandish visual effects feels perfectly in sync with the story he’s telling. But despite a few flashes of novelty (including vocal turns by Chris Rock and Kristin Chenoweth, who’s a long way from “Wicked”), “The Witches” is pretty thin brew by comparison, concocted from mostly secondhand ingredients. Once again it gives us a gluttonous boy sidekick named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), a mice-in-the-kitchen plot that now plays like leftover “Ratatouille” and a clever comeuppance for all those witches, even if most of them seem like dull, dead-eyed automatons rather than a child’s worst nightmare.

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‘The Witches’

Rated: PG, for scary images/moments, language and thematic elements

Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes

Playing: Available Oct. 22 on HBO Max


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