That the new film adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1983 book The Witches would be worse than its source, and worse as well than the 1990 version of the story directed by Nicolas Roeg, is hardly any surprise at all, and really not even worth commenting on. What shocked me is just how bad it is, entirely on its own terms. Especially since those terms include being a collaboration between Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo del Toro, who both worked on the script (Zemeckis wrote the final draft with Kenya Barris), and both serve as producers, along with Zemeckis's guy Jack Rapke, and the great director Alfonso CuarΓ³n.* That's a lot of famous talent on-hand, and it's specifically a lot of famous talent that, taken all together, should know a thing or two about making appropriately creepy family-friendly horror based on a beloved literary source.

On the other hand, it bears remembering that the most significant precursors to this project in Zemeckis's career are The Polar Express and the 2009 A Christmas Carol, neither of which is at all good, and in fact both of which we might very plausibly describe as "bad". And I regret to say that these two movies are definitely the best points of comparison for The Witches, particularly as concerns its inexplicably horrible CGI. It is, for God's sake, 2020. We're going on a third of a century of CGI as one of the main ways to do visual effects at this point, we should in principle have figured out something about what makes it good versus what makes it very fucking horrible. And yet, here comes The Witches, in which only one of five main characters isn't either completely or partially a CGI effect, and it feels like amateur hour from start to finish. Three of those characters are human children who were turned into mice, and so have to be more or less realistic-looking rodents with expressive human faces, and they are repulsive, especially the chubby British one, who looks manages to fall into the Uncanny Valley while also looking too much like a cartoon.Β The movie version of Stuart Little came out 21 years ago, and somehow it has better-looking CGI mice-people than this. It's vulgar.

At any rate, The Witches: in whichΒ  a young orphan (Jahzir Bruno) moves in with his grandma (Octavia Spencer) in rural Alabama in 1968. Both of them are African-American, and it is 1968 in the American South, and the absolute most that the film ever does with this is to have one line where a snooty hotelier is confused for about two seconds that they're there to check in. I of course do not require every children's fantasy film to be a referendum on the civil rights movement, but if you're going to go to the trouble of making those specific changes to the source material, I would like to imagine it was for a reason. Alas.

The boy is very sad and solemn, and his grandmother is having a hard time teasing him out of his shell of mourning; just about when she's started to break down his walls, he has an alarming experience in a grocery store with a strange woman in posh clothes. That was no woman, his terrified grandma explains, but a witch, a species of monster she has some experience with. She immediately flees with the boy to a seaside hotel, hoping to elude the witch until she can figure out what to do next. In a spot of unreasonable bad luck, the same hotel, at the same time, is hosting the international convention of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is the name behind which a coven of all the world's most powerful and even witches hides, as the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) plots a nefarious scheme to kill all children by turning them into mice. She demonstrates this on a dull little British boy, Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick), and then later catches our protagonist sniffing around, and transforms him as well, and the two mice-boys team up with the hero's pet mouse, also revealed to be a transformed child named Mary (Kristen Chenoweth, horribly distracting). The three of them team up with Grandma to outwit the witches and stop their nefarious plot, and all that.

The script is not by any means great, but it's not really the issue here. It's sanding off some of the edge of the book, of course (though fewer than I expected, and arguably fewer than the 1990 film), and it runs the material through a Harry Potter filter, at least in comparison to Dahl's material. And the final scenes of the film - some of them running during the credits, in a fashion that makes it feel like they had no idea how to end the movie and were trying out two different options simultaneously - are just the absolutely dumbest thing, frantically adding material and gags in the hope that if they just keep writing, eventually a conclusion will present itself, and they can jump off quickly.

The script is functional, though, and that's more than I feel comfortable saying about pretty much any other aspect of the production. The atrocious CGI I have mentioned, but I didn't even get as far as the very bad and unconvincing witch effects: see, witches have giant, shark-like mouths, which they cover up with a tremendous amount of foundation and pancake makeup, leaving just thin little lines that look like scars along their cheeks. But when they are alone, or being especially evil, their jaws unhinge like Pez dispensers, revealing a spiky tongue and a whole half-circle of sharp little teeth. It's the right kind of gross in concept, though more than a little garish and gaudy, but the execution doesn't work even slightly: every time Hathaway witches out (and it's almost always her we see do it), you can almost watch her skin ripple into a CGI sheath; at one point, her "normal" mouth actually seems to shift position on her face slightly.

Bad effects are the most visible flaw with the movie, but not the only one, and not even the most damaging. Zemeckis has no command of tone at all, and The Witches lurches inelegantly between doe-eyed sentiment to child-friendly spookiness to comic slapstick, and all three modes are done poorly: the worst of it, I think, are the treacly family drama scenes that open and close the movie, when the film tries and fails to make the relationship between the boy and his grandma serve as the emotional spine for the rest of the drama. It's a mistake to begin with the boy in mourning, in part: it means that we never see the "nice" version of their relationship until the witch hunting begins in earnest. But it doesn't help that Zemeckis and cinematographer Don Burgess are slathering everything in such shiny digital colors, suggesting all the sincere depth of a commercial for greeting cards. Once the action shifts to the hotel, it's all about wide angle lenses and too much lighting, the better to make everything look bulbous and wacky in a manner that I'm certain they intended to be "amusing".

Much of the film clearly intends to be amusing, most obviously Hathaway going all-in on cornball campiness, in a performance of slinking around in the sleek costumes with little touches of snake imagery that Joanna Johnston has provided for her (the costumes are the only visual element of the film that works). She's obviously having a great times snarling and slithering and delivering dialogue in a bespoke accent that is sometimes a combination of French and Polish, and sometimes just a caricature of Swedish, and I do like it when actors go for broke. But this is such a sloppy combination of wacky impulses that it never coheres into a single character, let alone a credible threat.

Spencer, playing the only vaguely recognisable human in the film, does everything in her power to make this work, but she is completely lost in a movie that has this much effects wizardry in it; she clearly doesn't believe in the invisible animated mice that she's talking to, and she tries to make up for it by talking in a very earnest, over-stated way that suggests the way that people sometimes talk very loudly, slowly, and clearly when they're trying to communicat through a language barrier. It's frankly a very stressful performance to watch, and I feel awful for Spencer that her directorΒ  wasn't there to help her out; it ends up being a disaster for the movie, which needs her to provide the emotional warmth and stability that the rest of the project wants, and gets something closer to a bad children's television host.

On the other hand, Spencer's performance is exactly what this Witches deserves: strained, can't find a tone, ready to lean on cheap sentimentality when it can't do anything else. This is a misbegotten project, one that reveals all of the director's shortcomings as an emotional storyteller, and can't even make good use of his one strength that would seem to apply here (he is, or was, a great director of visual effects). The garish silliness of it is appealing in its own loose, limited way, but by and large, this is simply dreadful, an exemplar of all the shrill, obnoxious things that effects-driven children's cinema tends to rely on in the modern age, without even a decent sense of creepy, spooky family-friendly horror to make the rest of it tolerable.




*And also Luke Kelly, who doesn't seem to be anyone of note, with all due apologies to him.