‘The Witches’ is trapped between scary and funny

Stanley Tucci, Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer star in HBOMax’ “The Witches.” PHOTO CREDIT HBOMAX

By Richard Roeper

Signal Contributing Writer

Roald Dahl’s The Witches’

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by Roald Dahl. Rated PG (for scary images/moments, language and thematic elements). Running time: 104 minutes. Available on HBO Max.

The credentials are unassailable. “The Witches” is based on a book by the legendary Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “James and the Giant Peach”), is directed by the wonderful Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” “The Polar Express”) and features a cast led by Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer and Anne Hathaway and featuring Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth and Stanley Tucci. What could possibly go sideways?

(Clears throat.) Let us count the ways.

Whereas the 1990 adaptation by Nicholas Roeg (featuring the puppetry of Jim Henson) successfully captured the dark fantasy spirit of the source material — though Dahl reportedly was incensed that Roeg changed the ending — this new version is trapped somewhere between scary and funny, between chilling and zany, and never quite finds its identity. The special effects are first-rate and the performances are way over the top yet entertaining, but “The Witches” is far too disturbing for young children and not edgy enough to captivate adults.

Chris Rock, punching up every line as if he’s doing an imitation of Chris Rock, serves as our narrator, telling a fantastical tale from when he was a kid identified only as the Boy (Jahzir Bruno), who comes to live with Grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after his parents are killed in a car crash. “A note about witches,” says the narrator. “They’re as real as a rock in your shoe. The second thing you need to know is, they’re here!”

With songs such as “I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops and “The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding establishing the period-piece setting, we’re transported to the late 1960s, as the Boy moves into Grandmother’s tidy home, with the living room furniture covered in plastic and the kitchen a model of Corningware colors. At first, the Boy is mired in a deep depression over the loss of his parents, but eventually Grandma gets him to perk up, with the help of a pet she buys for him: a mouse he dubs Daisy. But darkness is lurking just around the corner in the form of a witch who is waiting for the right moment to snatch up the Boy and turn HIM into a mouse, because that’s what witches do. They hate children, and their mission in life is to turn them into mice or chickens. Come on witches, find a better hobby!

Turns out Grandma is a healer who has a closet filled with magic potions, and she’s been on the lookout to do battle with witches ever since she was a little girl and her best friend Alice was snatched up by a witch and turned into a chicken. “Alice was chicken-ified!” Grandma tells the Boy. Most of “The Witches” takes place in a luxury hotel in Alabama, where The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, doing a cartoon Transylvania accent) has convened with her coven (say that three times fast) to conspire to turn all the world’s children into mice. The scenes where the witches doff their wigs and bare their teeth and claws are grotesque and disturbing, at odds with the cutesy, chattering mice-kids who do battle with the witches. And though this version of “The Witches” is faithful to the ending of the book, that ending is odd and dark and filled with gloom.


Well Go USA presents a film directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead and written by Benson. Rated R (for drug content and language throughout, and for some violent/bloody images). Running time: 103 minutes.

For the second time in the movies this year, the city of New Orleans is reeling from the introduction of a powerful synthetic drug with supernatural sci-fi side effects.

First there was “Project Power,” in which a mysterious pill granted you a superpower for five minutes — but you wouldn’t know the nature of that superpower until you took the drug, and it might result in your violent death.

Now comes “Synchronic,” and this time around, the synthetic drug will give you a high that goes beyond heroin and even alter the space-time continuum — but there’s also a strong chance you’ll wind up on a paramedic’s gurney on the way to the hospital, or murdered at the hands of someone from another century. Talk about a trip.

Even before we learn about the dangerous and mysterious drug in “Synchronic,” something about New Orleans feels … off. The skies above the city swirl and glow in strange ways, and it always feels as if it’s 2 a.m. and there’s nobody on the streets, and bad things are happening in and around the dilapidated houses in the city’s worst neighborhoods. The camerawork adds to the feeling of disconnect and impending despair; we weave this way and that as we follow veteran EMTs and best friends Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan), who find themselves responding to increasingly bizarre emergencies. They find drug overdose victims who are babbling incoherently and often suffering from grotesque injuries, sometimes with fatal results. A bite from a snake that hasn’t been seen in this region for decades. A compound fracture suffered by a victim speaking in tongues. A spontaneous combustion. A stab wound — from a centuries-old sword. The only thing the victims have in common is they’ve all ingested a lab-produced drug known as Synchronic.

Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (“Resolution,” “V/H/S: Viral”) do a brilliant job of giving us a visceral ride through the experiences of a Synchronic trip, in which you’ll find yourself on your sofa but suddenly your sofa is in the middle of a swamp a century ago, or you wake up in the Ice Age, with a woolly mammoth trudging by in the background. Mackie’s Steve, who once dreamed of becoming a scientist (his beloved dog is named Hawking) and has a passionate interest in quantum physics and unexplained phenomena, manages to track down the last several packets of Synchronic. (The chemist who created the drug has had a crisis of conscience and is no longer making it.) When Dennis’ teenage daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing, Steve makes it his mission to take one dangerous and potentially life-sapping Synchronic trip after another in an effort to find out where and WHEN she is and bring her home safe.

“Synchronic” is filled with big ideas played out on a relatively small canvas. It’s about best friends who envy each other’s lives and don’t appreciate what they have. Dennis found the love of his life (the always terrific Katie Aselton) and is still married to her, but he’s allowed the relationship to stagnate, and he tells Steve the problem with finding the love of your life is you’ll never again have that feeling of first discovering her. Steve rightfully calls bull — and laments being alone, especially when he finds out he’s sick. Really sick.

Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan both have been parts of blockbuster Hollywood franchises — “The Avengers” and “Fifty Shades of Grey,” respectively — but they comfortably slip into this gritty indie vehicle and deliver some of their best performances working together. Through the psychedelic journeys and the blood-spattered crime scenes and the brooding atmosphere, “Synchronic” is at heart a good old-fashioned buddy movie about two friends who will risk all for each other.

Copyright 2020 Chicago Sun-Times

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