#15 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
This feels like a return to an older style of storytelling for Robert Zemeckis. This is more in line with the manic early films of his career rather than the more maturely told movies he’d been making since the 90s. In another way, this also feels like the safest move he could have made after the financial flop that was Allied and the incredibly ill-conceived mess (as well as financial flop) that was Welcome to Marwen. A retelling of a well-regarded children’s book that had another adaptation from thirty years ago is the sort of safe movie an established director makes after having cost some studios a few bundles of money.
So, witches are real, and they’re real ugly and they hate children. Our protagonist (I’m not calling him Hero Boy) is a young boy who lost his parents to a car crash in Chicago in the 60s and moved in with his grandmother in Alabama. She’s a healer and tells him of witches and how they want to turn children into animals. When our protagonist meets a witch in the local grocery store, Grandma takes serious precautions and takes the boy to a swanky hotel on the Gulf Coast that her relation used to be the executive chef at. Coincidentally, a large coven of witches are using the hotel at the same time for a gathering in which the Grand High Witch details her master plan to put a potion in chocolate that will turn children into mice. The boy and another young English boy named Bruno get turned into mice, and the two, along with another child turned mouse that the boy had kept as a pet and the boy’s grandmother, must find a way to fight the witches and turn their evil plot around.
It’s the exact same story as the Nicholas Roeg version from 1990 with a different ending, but, oddly enough, Zemeckis’ version, which runs about fifteen minutes longer, ends up moving far more quickly with a focus on visceral movement and action over brooding menace. I enjoy the Roeg version, but this one is definitely a different beast despite the same story, and I find Zemeckis’ return to spectacle based storytelling to be a fun diversion.
Performed with a very odd Swedish/Norwegian accent by Anne Hathaway, the Grand High Witch is a scenery chewing monster without any subtlety, and as an antagonist in a children’s fantasy adventure tale, I found her amusing. Octavia Spencer plays the Grandmother with tenderness and strictness in equal measure, providing a very nice human grounding for the second half of the film after the boy gets turned into a mouse.
The special effects use CGI rather extensively, even going so far as to animate a cat that’s never more than a cat, and I get the feeling that the decision to move the release from theaters to HBO Max might have cut back on the budget to finalize the movie a bit. The computer generated animals never look bad, mind you, but they exist between cartoonish and real in an uncomfortable spot. They’re just a bit too cartoonish to feel like they exist in the same space as the humans around them. Another few million and a couple more passes in post-production might have made that gel a bit better, but as it stands, in a children’s fantasy adventure film, I found it largely serviceable. As an end note, I did find Alan Silvestri’s score to be an odd companion to the action on screen as he pulled rather heavily from his work on The Avengers movies, delivering a bombastic and bass heavy score in place of something to probably should have been lighter and more whimsical like he did on Back to the Future.
Energetic, well-performed, and appealing, Robert Zemeckis’ apology for losing so much money on his last two movies is a fun diversion of a family film with a menacing villain and a winning performance by Octavia Spencer.
Originally published here