To overcome an illness, Agatha takes Charlie to a fancy hotel, where it just so happens a massive coven of witches have assembled to discuss their plan to rid the world of pesky children. The conference is led by The Grand High Witch, played by a heavily-accented, scenery-chewing Anne Hathaway. There are times when it feels like Hathaway is in an entirely different film from everyone else, going for broad camp more than the rest of the cast, which also includes Stanley Tucci as the hotel manager. At its best, it reminds one of Cruella de Vil, a huge character surrounded by ordinary ones. She preens and prowls through the movie, often stealing it from everything around her.
There’s a centerpiece sequence in which Charlie first encounters The Grand High Witch that’s easily the film’s best. After making clear her intention to turn all children in the world into mice, the witches find a hiding Charlie, and the tension and striking imagery is pure nightmare fuel for anyone under 12 (and most people older than that too). Hathaway drives a fun and yet honestly threatening sequence that the film struggles to match in its second half.
As great as it can be, “The Witches” lacks the best world-building and depth of some other Dahl material, and Zemeckis can’t quite figure out how to make this story richer. The back half is incredibly thin in terms of plotting, especially when compared to the revelations and sheer technical excellence of that aforementioned centerpiece sequence. There’s a fun bit on a balcony and another in a kitchen, but the movie never achieves that central tension again, even in its final showdowns. And then it kind of peters out to a variation on the same non-ending of the source.
And yet, just like the people who were exactly the right age in 1990, kids won’t forget “The Witches.” There’s still power in the idea that something is out there in the night and wants to hurt you, and it’s telling that this force comes into Charlie’s life after his parents die, removing that layer of parental protection. Ultimately, this feels like minor work for Zemeckis & del Toro based on a minor work by Dahl, but it could be a major work for a kid who sees it at just the right age.
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