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‘The Witches’ is one of Anne Hathaway’s most disturbed performances to date

I will say that for The witches: I didn’t expect to find myself laughing out loud at a prolonged moment in which Anne Hathaway chews the word “garlic” with a funny accent.

About halfway through the movie, she’s there – posing and pouting on a gorgeous oceanfront patio as the Grand High Witch, sheathed against the gentle waves in a high-necked black and purple suit that yells “Crimson peak by means of Attacks on Mars! ” With each repeat of the word, she somehow finds an even more insane inflection.

“No ghorrrlic in your soup,” she purrs in Germanic tones (ish?) Eastern European (ish) slash to an obsequious Alabaman hotelier played by her the devil wears Prada co-starring Stanley Tucci. As he struggles to understand, she reveled in the word, practically rolling the “R” and clicking the “K” at the end: “Ghorrrrrlick. ” The third time, she lost all patience; everything is attitude, no nonsense: “No! Gorlick! “

Hathaway’s performance here is a comedic wonder – the culmination of his increasingly campy performances in Ocean’s 8 and Serenity. Sometimes the great oddity of it all echoes one of the The witches the most successful bizarre films of director Robert Zemeckis, Death becomes her.

Some artists may have caved in under the pressure to follow Anjelica Huston in this role after the legendary actress’ turn in the Nicholas Roeg adaptation in 1990. Hathaway, on the contrary, sank her claws and found something new and just as grotesque – more manic, more silly and somehow also more dangerous. But she did it in a movie that never really deserved her performance.

Thirty years ago, Anjelica Huston donned a black velvet dress and silicone mask designed by Jim Henson, then peeled off her face to terrify a generation of children. The lasting memory of this adaptation could explain why so many big names rallied behind the camera to try and get the 2020s. tell right. Zemeckis directed and also produced The witches alongside Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. Blackish creator Kenya Barris joined Zemeckis and del Toro to write the screenplay.

Like Roeg before him, Zemeckis chooses and chooses which parts of Roald Dahl’s story he wants – although his ending negates his predecessor’s choice that upset the author. The kids of 2020 will likely find the new one Witches‘more familiar visuals (CGI animals, stylized production) than the 1990 version’s mix of live action and puppetry.

Zemeckis also eschews much of the anti-Semitism embodied in Dahl’s text, replacing the original witches’ big noses – an anti-Semitic trope – with gaping, toothy CGI mouths. Yet even this film suffers from a cruelty similar to the work of Dahl, mocking and dehumanizing characters based on common physical traits like fat and baldness.

As one can imagine from the number of cooks in the kitchen, The witches is too scattered to turn the text into anything new, even despite a change of scenery from 1980s England to 1960s Alabama. Echoes of the director and producers’ previous work can be seen – some strange Polar Express– like the animation here, a little Crimson peak– the bodily horror inflected there – but the narrative never stabilizes enough to convey a deeper meaning. Even the target age of the film can sometimes be difficult to pin down.

In this version of the story, Chris Rock provides a new layer of storytelling as the adult version of a little boy raised by his grandmother after a tragic car crash killed his parents. Octavia Spencer – magnetic and warm as always, if not challenged by her role – plays the loving grandmother who steps in to raise him and gives him a new pet mouse, which he names Daisy.

After a spooky run to the drugstore, Grandma finally tells her grandson all about witches – demons in human form who walk among us every day in wigs and gloves, who hate children above all else. . When the two flee to Alabama’s prettiest hotel, they unwittingly land in the middle of a witching convention – where the coven plots to destroy the children once and for all by turning them into mice.

Each performer of The witches seems to be playing in a different movie. Spencer’s performance is largely straightforward and serious, as is that of newcomer Jahzir Bruno as he plays his grandson. Rock’s storytelling injects much-needed comic energy, but that vibrant voice is disjointed from how the character’s young self is written. And then there’s Anne Hathaway, playing with a CGI pet menagerie that includes a cat and snake that doubles as a dress strap – and all the time, for some reason, wearing a metal bustier.

Either version of this film, one that relied on the story’s emotional resonance and narrative potential, or a completely insane version, would have been more successful than the muddled middle ground on which this one has landed. For some, even Hathaway’s gonzo performance might not justify the admittedly excessive runtime. But what can I say? As I’m sitting here, I’m thinking of changing my phone ringtone to “gorrlic, “I have to admit that The witches must have cast some sort of spell on me.

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