'The Witches' Remake Brings Robert Zemeckis Back to Family-Friendly Fare

With the help of Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, the man behind ‘Back to the Future’ could have a hit in the making.

Anjelica Huston The Witches

With the help of Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, the man behind ‘Back to the Future’ could have a hit in the making.

Some of Robert Zemeckis‘s best work just so happens to appeal to people of all ages. This is no surprise, nor is it a particular dig at the director. After all, we’re talking about the mentee of blockbuster king Steven Spielberg here. From Back to the Future to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Zemeckis put out highly entertaining smash hits early in his career, and the best part about them is they remain iconic today. The famed studio director is best known for making a mark in the landscape of special effects, including them in his live-action offerings to create larger-than-life experiences.

Zemeckis’s more recent filmography has heavily skewed towards just adult audiences, though. Discounting the Back to the Future themed short film Doc Brown Saves the World that came out in 2015, his efforts in the past decade have stayed in dramatic territory with Flight, The Walk, and Allied. These films have been met with decreasing popularity, although none of them have really fallen below a lukewarm reception. Clearly, Zemeckis is good enough to deliver something serviceable, but audiences are waiting for another project that actually stands apart from his recent catalog.

Zemeckis could return to form with a new Roald Dahl adaptation. As reported by Variety, he will write and direct a new version of The Witches for Warner Bros. Long-time collaborator Jack Rapke, who has worked on such Zemeckis-helmed family films as The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, will be joining forces with the filmmaker yet again for the project. And in even better news, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro will lend their expertise to The Witches as they board the film as producers.

Dahl’s “The Witches” is a cross-country dark fantasy story set in Norway and Britain. The novel follows the escapades of a young British boy and his Norwegian grandmother. In a classic tale of good versus evil, they must face down some well-disguised witches — child-hating magical beings who appear harmless from the outset — in order to save the children of the world. And as is typical of Dahl’s writing style, the novel’s creepy underpinnings are wrapped up in plenty of idiosyncrasies.

“The Witches” was previously adapted by Nicolas Roeg into a 1990 horror-comedy starring Anjelica Huston. That film was well-received and remains particularly memorable for providing a definitive depiction of the witchy Huston aesthetic we now know and love. Mai Zetterling’s portrayal of the protagonist’s grandmother also keeps within the majestic spirit of her novelistic counterpart very well. Nevertheless, Roeg’s film is actually more of a loose adaptation of Dahl’s book, with additional characters and relationship arcs, a change of setting, and a notoriously flipped ending — something Dahl himself famously hated.

Variety notes that Warner Bros. is aiming to be more faithful to the original novel this time around, which at least ensures book fans that Dahl’s darker commentary about evil in disguise won’t be sugarcoated. Of course, fidelity need not be the only way to assess the merits of any adaptation, especially regarding the works of an author as well-known as Dahl. Each filmmaker is bound to have their own priorities when bringing the source material to life.

Like Roeg’s The Witches, Danny DeVito’s 1996 film of “Matilda” is Americanized and changed several plot points, but it remains one of the best Dahl adaptations to date. A cinematic classic like Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is celebrated for its indelible portrayals of iconic characters despite a thinner narrative — Dahl also disliked that particular film for focusing too much on Gene Wilder’s rendition of Wonka than the novel’s true protagonist, Charlie Bucket. When Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory presented a far better portrayal of Charlie (thanks to Freddie Highmore), the world then had to contend with a Johnny Depp caricature of Wonka.

Arguably the most cinematically distinctive Dahl adaptation to date happens to be Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Anderson’s film manages to retain the spirit of both book and auteur, and that’s where more Dahl adaptations should go. It’s the reason why the prospect of Paul King’s reported involvement in yet another Willy Wonka movie is so fascinating. King may be in the early days of his career, and his style will definitely continue to develop as he makes more movies. Regardless, his first picture out the gate, Paddington, oozed with buckets of personality already. It’s perfect for the Dahl world.

Zemeckis clearly doesn’t lack any talent or experience in telling a relatable story to the masses either. However, his work oscillates between having not much of a distinctive style at all (as evidenced by his later, cut-and-dry dramas) and his more visually experimental offerings with films such as A Christmas Carol. The motion-capture animation definitely lent an extra layer of creepiness to the latter, Jim Carrey-led film, effectively pushing its message. Hopefully, these elements of A Christmas Carol do show up in The Witches. Zemeckis’s experience in making eerie, moral-filled tales would fit superbly with the essential whimsical weirdness of a Dahl tale.

Very likely, The Witches’ style will also be amplified by Cuaron and del Toro, which would be the best-case scenario. Del Toro needs no introduction when it comes to creepy movies. Meanwhile, of Cuaron’s diverse film credits, he is perhaps most famously responsible for delivering a darker Harry Potter installment to the masses, which has often been touted as the best film in the series.

Both filmmakers had expressed interest in adapting the novel since 2008, with Cuaron developing the project as a producer and del Toro slated to get behind the camera. Despite scheduling conflicts rendering the latter unable to take up the directorial mantle, their contributions to Zemeckis’s project will undoubtedly be invaluable.

It’s about time that Zemeckis had a little career resuscitation if only to inject something potentially innovative into his filmography again. Together with Cuaron and del Toro, he could very well deliver a worthy Dahl adaptation.

Often chugging tea and thinking about horror movies. Curator of daily stuff and things here at Film School Rejects.