If Guillermo del Toro and Robert Zemeckis stood at opposite ends of a movie and pulled as hard as they could in opposite directions, the output would likely not be dissimilar from the new adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which has one of the most haunting, heartfelt, spellbinding first acts of a film I’ve ever seen before it dissolves into a generic cartoon. I’m glad it exists, I’m glad I watched, I’m glad to recommend it; but I wish my brain weren't so distracted by questions about how such a gorgeous film could derail so completely at the halfway mark.
The first hour is an astounding improvement upon the original novel, which I didn’t believe was possible. Updating the setting to 1968 Alabama with a predominantly Black cast is an inspired idea. It creates an entirely new intent for the story, which at its outset is about human responses to unfairness and conflicting impulses to despair and to endure. A critique of American racism and class lurks as close to the surface as possible, and the movie’s strength is in what goes unsaid between weary, knowing glances, as well as some arresting touches of horror.
Some of the first act’s greatest scary moments are hypnotic, such as a seductive witch in a grocery store whose raspy performance is leap-off-the-couch inspired. Others are more ironic, such as when Octavia Spencer’s character declares that they’ll be safe at a hotel surrounded by “rich white people”—oh no, no no no, it’s 1968 in Alabama.
There are clear touches of del Toro (who co-wrote the screenplay) throughout Act I, with furtive peeks at terrible monsters, an uncaring world, and one truly horrifying fate for a child. Not to be this kind of old person, but they don’t make movies like this anymore: Unapologetically nightmarish, the world is depicted as cruel and unsafe—as it certainly was and is, particularly for families such as the one inhabiting this film. Among the first shots of the film are dead parents; don’t be afraid to watch with kids, but be ready for them to be disturbed, and in ten to fifteen years to smirkingly ask “why did you let me watch that?”
Then the movie climaxes with a joke about a rat biting Stanley Tucci on the dick.
This whiplash in tone is incomprehensible. The setup presents us with a magical, dangerous, intelligent world, and then the payoff is all zany clown honks. At one point, Anne Hathaway’s astounding Grand High Witch declares that she will reach into a character’s chest and pull out their heart, which coincidentally is the same fate that befalls the film. Its beautiful heart ceases to beat halfway through, when the camera becomes disinterested in the characters' feelings and decides instead to make a half-baked collage of action scenes from Mouse Hunt and Ratatouille.
And then there are the many loose threads, set up in Act I and left to dangle: They say they’re going to the hotel because they have a family member who works (or worked?) in the kitchen, which seems like foreshadowing for the story’s eventual kitchen-capering; that ladle on the mantle goes unused. A girl (or woman?) mouse is introduced, played by Kristin Chenoweth doing an Amy Sedaris impression, explains her incredibly convoluted backstory, and then stands around adding nothing to the story like an extra the director forgot he hired. There’s a payoff with a cat that suggests a complex relationship with the GHW, but without any setup it feels like the movie decided to finish a sentence that only it could hear.
And I don’t want to linger on this critique, but the cartoon elements of the film are distractingly uncanny, with every creature animated like someone pushing jello blobs through a pile of hair. If you enjoyed the ghoulish talking mannequins of director Zemeckis’ Polar Express and Beowulf, wait until you see these mice, nominally the stars of the story but about as interesting to look at as Woody Allen in Ants.
Anne Hathaway, incidentally, is incredible. I am angry that this movie came out when we cannot all go to parties in Grand High Witch cosplay.
How very much I love the first half of this film, with its gorgeous attention to period detail and heartfelt tenderness between the characters. With their shared loss of loved ones, the grandmother and the Hero Boy form a bond over their resolve not to give in to despair. What seems at first like a realistic family drama becomes a supernatural gothic horror as witches creep slowly from hiding, Anne Hathaway devouring the scenery with a terrifying maw seemingly inspired by Death Note’s Ryuk and an amazing vocal affect that sounds like talking tetanus.
And then: Honk honk, fart sound. Octavia Spencer delivers a few tongue-twisting platitudes into her empty palm, the camera whirls around, and the credits roll—although the film provides even its closing credits in a way that seems unsure of what just happened. The mice can be added in post, but the heart cannot be revived.