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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
"The Witches," starring Octavia Spencer and Anne Hathaway, is streaming on HBO Max. It's an adaptation of the 1983 Roald Dahl book about a kid and his grandmother who get caught up in the dastardly plans of a group of child-hating witches at a seaside hotel.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
The book's action takes place in Britain, but director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis has changed the setting to 1960s Alabama and made the kid and his grandmother Black. I'm Aisha Harris.
WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. We're talking about "The Witches" on this episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
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WELDON: Welcome back. You just met our own Aisha Harris. Joining us from her home in Philadelphia is Christina Tucker of the "Unfriendly Black Hotties" podcast. Welcome back, Christina.
CHRISTINA TUCKER: Hello, my friends.
WELDON: And joining us from her home in Boston is Margaret H. Willison, who is one-half of the Two Bossy Dames newsletter and one-third of the "Appointment Television" podcast. Welcome back, Margaret.
MARGARET H WILLISON: Hi, guys. I'm happy to be here.
WELDON: OK, let's get into it. So Octavia Spencer is Grandma, who takes in our unnamed narrator, played by Jahzir Bruno, when his parents die. Grandma knows a lot about witches and teaches him how to recognize them. When the kid gets threatened by a witch, he and Grandma escaped to a sumptuous hotel, where there just happens to be a convention of U.S. witches under the command of their international leader, the Grand High Witch, played by Anne Hathaway.
It's not the first time this book has been made into a film. Nicolas Roeg directed a 1990 version of it, starring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, which is on Netflix. But that one hewed close to the book and was very, very English. But as we mentioned, this one changes the setting and the main characters and makes several other alterations as well, which are interesting if you know anything about Roald Dahl.
I'll just say here at the top this is a 1983 book, and a 1990 movie preceded it, and now this movie. And we have to talk about how the endings differ, so we'll be doing a little bit of that.
Christina, I'm going to start with you. First of all, did you read this book as a kid?
TUCKER: I did. I liked this book as a kid. It's, you know, as with Dahl, it's creepy and weird and unsettling in a way that I enjoyed because I guess I was a kid who enjoyed that kind of stuff. I also very much enjoyed the 1990s version. I think it was a really formative experience for a lot of folks in my age range. And then this one happened.
TUCKER: I was bored is the problem with it. It was boring to me in a way that I felt was pretty disappointing.
I think the times where it feels like it has something to say or something to do is, like, really Anne Hathaway's just fully over-the-top, campy performance. But no one was on her level with that. And it feels like she's just alone in a sea of CGI mouth adjustments and not really working with a real person or anything else kind of grounding her to the rest of the scenario.
So eh, you know? Eh. It happened. I watched it. Kind of all I got.
WELDON: That's totally cool. All right, so that's a distinctive meh. Margaret, what's your relationship with the book, the first movie and this movie?
WILLISON: So I definitely read the book. And I'm just going to say right now I'm not sure which is more disconcerting - the way I'm apparently supposed to say Roald Dahl or what the witches' feet look like in this movie.
WILLISON: Either way, I read all of his books when I was a kid. And then, I think like a lot of adults revisiting his work as a grown-up, I'm like, wow, this is all kind of awful. I don't like any of this. It's a great reminder of what bloodthirsty, vindictive little savages children actually are because you're reading and you're like, I don't know how I feel about the Manichaean morality that I'm seeing here. And just all of these people are just the worst. Kids are like, yeah, they're the worst, and they're going to suffer for it. They're going to get turned into a rat and stomped on. Duh. That's what happens to bad people. So I would say that's my relationship with Mr. Dahl.
And I certainly watched the movie when I was a kid. And, Glen, you are right. All of the changes made in light of his orientation to race and women are fascinating ones, but I don't know that the movie went anywhere with those changes. Like, the setting is beautiful. The costumes are spectacular. Critic Alanna Bennett described Anne Hathaway's performance as this is her Eddie Redmayne in "Jupiter Ascending," which is exactly right.
WELDON: Pretty good.
TUCKER: That's what it is.
WILLISON: But I'd like the Anne Hathaway highlight reel and a really long article about the beautiful costumes and wigs. And everything else I can sort of set to one side, mostly, for myself.
WELDON: OK. I mean, the 1990 Nicolas Roeg movie was all practical effects - mostly practical effects - and practical makeup. And it was terrifying not just to kids, but just in general. Here, that's been swapped out for CGI, as you all mentioned. And, you know, it works, sometimes it doesn't. Anytime you alter a face, as they're doing to the witches' faces, it's a one-way ticket to creep-town. But don't sleep on the arms and that toe, which is just...
WILLISON: That toe.
TUCKER: Not sleeping on that toe.
WELDON: ...Profoundly unsettling.
WILLISON: That I am able to sleep after seeing that toe is impressive.
WELDON: Of course. Aisha, what'd you think?
HARRIS: So looking back on this, I do wonder if this book and the movie did not in some way influence my decision to be happily child-free because...
HARRIS: ...Because I just - I realized that, like, I read it probably around the age of 8 or 9. And I remember seeing the movie soon after reading it. And that movie terrified me.
And to your point about the practical effects, to me, that's part of what makes the 1990 version so much better than this. Jim Henson did the puppetry, and so everything in that movie feels real. When the Grand High Witch and all the other witches are peeling off their faces, even though it's obviously clearly fantasy and fake, it's still - you can, like, viscerally feel the peeling and see the warts, whereas the CGI effects here just really kind of flatten everything to this point where it just feels very uncanny.
Also in the original movie, there's a lot of, like, green smoke that's coming out, and you can see the green smoke still lingering in the air. But, like, in this movie, it just, again, looks like digitized smoke. It's just not as effective.
Obviously, I'm older than I was when I saw the original movie, but I feel like if I had seen this movie, the new version, as a child now, I wouldn't be nearly as scared. Like, it's just not creepy.
HARRIS: I will say we have to talk about Anjelica Huston in the original movie because I think that both Anne Hathaway and Anjelica Huston are very committed to their roles. They are committed in very different ways.
HARRIS: Anjelica Huston is playing it straight. As over-the-top as she can be in moments, she has a lot of smaller moments and quieter moments, and she's slinky and she's creepy, whereas Anne Hathaway - and I get the Eddie Redmayne point in "Jupiter Ascending," absolutely. But I have here in my notes that she reminded me of Liza Minnelli doing "I Gotcha" in "Liza With A Z." And I say this...
WELDON: Good pull (ph).
HARRIS: I say this as someone who loves Liza Minnelli, and I love "Liza With A Z." I don't think that this movie is where you want that kind of energy. It just felt zanier than I wanted it to be. It just didn't work for me.
And it's another example to me of Robert Zemeckis thinking that all the story can hinge on the special effects. We've seen it with "Polar Express," which infamously was, like, really, really visually interesting, but also their faces - the eyes were just hollow, and there was no feeling. And we've seen it with many other things. So not a fan of this.
WELDON: OK. I think I'm going to be defending this film again. Y'all put me in a weird position for me being me.
TUCKER: Go off, Glen.
WELDON: I mean, I came in prepared to say, you know, I served with Anjelica Huston. I knew Anjelica Huston. Anjelica Huston was a friend of mine. Anne Hathaway, you are no Anjelica Huston, but you won me over. She is going for it, right? She's doing British panto, which I think is the right frequency to vibrate in this particular gig.
But I do want to talk about Zemeckis. I mean, we just got finished talking about the Netflix "Rebecca," which is in exactly the same boat as this movie is in. It's adapting a beloved book about which there was already a pretty good movie, and we came away from that puzzled because it didn't justify its existence. It made no bold choices. It made no surprising choices except for the ending. It just lay there.
I like that this takes a swing. And there are little grace notes where the change to the setting, to the main characters, it adds a layer - a thin layer, but that's the goal - right? - to tell the story, but to add to it. And if it were any other filmmaker, they might've added, like, a distinctive visual style or an ironic tone. But this is Robert Zemeckis, and this dude has had 20 movies to develop an individual or signature style, but that's not what he's about. He's not an auteur. I mean, you don't watch a film and go, oh, Zemeckis. You know, it's just not who he is.
WELDON: I've always thought of him as kind of aggressive - and this is probably not fair, but an aggressively mainstream director who makes the occasional weird choice - "Welcome To Marwen."
WELDON: And we should also note that he has directed a performance like Hathaway's before in "Death Becomes Her." It's that same...
HARRIS: Ah, right. OK.
WELDON: ...Arch - scenery-chewing campiness, over the top.
What I'm curious about, though, is there is a warmth at the heart of this movie, Octavia Spencer, and Zemeckis certainly has a sentimental side. Roald Dahl, though, as you've mentioned, not a good dude - famously misanthropic, famously misogynistic, famously racist. So there is a certain satisfaction that comes.
WILLISON: A real triple threat.
WELDON: Yeah, real triple threat. There is a certain satisfaction that comes from watching this thing, just knowing how much he'd hate it.
WELDON: Yet, he has made some of the most beloved kids' books in the world. I think one of the reasons for that is that kids reach an age, an emotional maturity - whatever you want to call it - where a lack of sentimentality, where instead of all the sweetness they've been fed in media all their lives, suddenly, there's this splash of acid, and it's novel. I just remember reading his stuff growing up. Some people laugh when in a horror movie, somebody dies a really, really gruesome death. They just go, oh, God. I remember getting that same charge when something just surprisingly mean-spirited would happen in a Dahl book. It'd be like, that is dark. So do we need to ask the question if this film betrays Dahl's intent, and should we care at all about that? Christina, what do you think?
TUCKER: You know, I mean, I think the point of having that Zemeckis sentimentality is - I mean, it is what Zemeckis is just going to do, right? He's going to give you, like, some sort of heartening moment. He's going to attach it to these characters and expect the heart of the story to kind of pull it through.
I think for me, what didn't work - and as much as I do like the point of, like, this movie would make him, Mr. Dahl, pretty angry, given, you know, the Blackness of it, but it also kept pulling me out of the story because I would be like, well, so you're just going to go to this hotel, and it's 1968 and there's...
TUCKER: ...No problem with you guys just sauntering into this hotel?
HARRIS: In Alabama. In Alabama.
TUCKER: Explain that to me.
TUCKER: And, you know, the witches kind of gesture at - like, you know, they take poor kids, they take kids of color. There's like - we're talking kind of about it, but then there's no real depth or exploration of what that actually looks like or what that would actually mean or any kind of effects. It's just like, oh, this is a thing that happens, but let's not talk about it any further than, like, this very surface layer. So that also really puzzled me. And I think I spent a lot of time just looking at the screen and being like, but so much is unsaid here.
TUCKER: Like, why is Stanley Tucci being so nice to these Black people right now? That doesn't make any sense.
HARRIS: Yeah. I will say there was a big change that I had forgotten about. But after I rewatched the original "Witches" after watching this, for the first time in probably 15 years - probably more than that, actually - and the 1990 version actually changed the ending very significantly. In the book, he stays a mouse - the main character stays a mouse forever, and he's just accepting of it. And the 1990 version changes that, and at the very end, he turns back into a human.
And that might be the movie - the 1990 version's one - I mean, it's not a perfect movie, but it's, like, probably the one big thing that's just like, why would you do that, because that's part of what makes this book so interesting is the way in which it talks about death and children accepting their fates or understanding their fates. And so seeing the choice to move it back to this and have the mouse character in the new version stay a mouse - he's narrated by Chris Rock, which is disconcerting.
HARRIS: Yeah, which is interesting, although it brought me back to "Everybody Hates Chris," which is a very underrated sitcom, and he narrated that. And so I was very excited to hear him do that. He was one highlight of the movie.
WELDON: But he was doing old man voice, though, which...
TUCKER: His old man raised in the '60s Alabama voice.
TUCKER: I was like, what are you saying?
HARRIS: It was very weird. But I will say I did appreciate the fact that they kept the book ending here because I do think that conversation, that exchange they have where the boy is like, Grandma, how old am I, like, going to live, and she's like, not that much longer, but I'm not going to live that much longer either, so it's perfect, so no one will have to take care of you - it's just like...
HARRIS: ...So bizarre. But I appreciate that undercurrent of just, like, pragmatism and reality.
WELDON: Yeah. I mean, this film does try to maybe overcorrect, or at least correct - you know, if you strip away everything, this book is about a kid who's being taught to judge women by their physical appearance and to determine that they are evil. But there is a line in here that's been added about how Octavia Spencer clarifies that these witches aren't women, they're demons. And they also added a character voiced by Kristin Chenoweth - she's not in the other movie; she's not in the book - that, I guess, is a kind of a girl power statement. What'd you guys think of that?
WILLISON: I felt much more empowered by Anne Hathaway's shenanigans than I did by anything involving the white mouse, as voiced by Kristin Chenoweth, although Kristin Chenoweth voicing a mouse - I'm astonished it took us this long to get here. It seems like a very natural fit.
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm less interested in that. And I have to say Octavia Spencer - her choices lately for projects that she works on just didn't give me a lot of hope. But I also did like seeing her kind of in a more warm environment and having a little bit of fun. I want to see more of that, although I'm not sure if I need to see her keep playing, like, grandmotherly type roles.
TUCKER: I think she needs a break from talking about cornbread and its relative benefits.
TUCKER: Like, OK, I get it.
WILLISON: I mean, this movie had, clearly, a lot of money to work with, and it was well spent on costumes and soundtrack and then spent on actors, but not utilized, like Stanley Tucci.
WELDON: Tooch (ph).
TUCKER: Tooch (ph).
WILLISON: You can always get me with the Tooch (ph), and he's doing nothing here. He gets nothing to do. Why would you take the Tooch (ph) and waste the Tooch (ph)? That's what I'm asking you.
WELDON: But at the end of the day, this is a "Devil Wears Prada" on-screen reunion, and I'm good with that.
TUCKER: I just wish it had given me a little more energy from him to really cement that - the feeling of "The Devil Wears Prada" reunion...
TUCKER: ...In the way that I think we as a culture deserve.
WELDON: Yeah, he's not making a lot of choices here. He's just kind of playing it straight, which is, you know...
WELDON: And when you pair him with Anne Hathaway, especially when she's going big, sometimes delivering lines with such force that you cannot understand what she is saying - sometimes that's the joke, and sometimes it kind of isn't.
WELDON: All right, a range of reactions here. We want to know what you think about "The Witches." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. Thanks to all of you for being here.
WILLISON: Thanks for having us.
TUCKER: Thank you.
HARRIS: Thank you, Glen.
WELDON: And if you need a break later today, make sure to join us on Facebook Live today at 1 p.m. Eastern. We'll answer your questions about the podcast going daily or whatever else is on your mind. Plus, you'll get to know our newest host, Aisha Harris, a little bit better. Go to nprpresents.org to sign up for a reminder. And if you're listening to this episode a little later in the week, don't worry. You can head to facebook.com/pchh to watch the video.
And we will see you tomorrow - it's still weird to say that - when we will be talking about the new "Borat" sequel.
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