★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A worthy reboot of a much-beloved gateway horror fan favorite. Anne Hathaway chews up the scenery in the Robert Zemekis helmed adaptation of the Roald Dahl dark fantasy classic.
In 1990, Nicholas Roeg teamed up with Jim Henson and created a feature film adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s fantasy The Witches. Though it was not a box-office smash, it developed a cult following, largely due to the charismatic turn of Angelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, and the delightfully scary transformation into the hideous crone.
Fast forward thirty years, and this time it’s Robert Zemekis’ turn as the storyteller. He has always had a knack for wild fantasy films like Death Becomes Her, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Beowulf, and of course, Back to the Future. It feels like a Hollywood lifetime since he’s brought something meaningful to the screen (Welcome to Marwyn, another dark fantasy came and went without much fanfare) and with The Witches, it proves that he still has some magic left to spin.
The movie was originally slated for a major theatrical release in 2020, but the pandemic set in, and Warner Brothers decided that this would be a fantastic fit for HBO Max, as the studio was trying to direct audiences with original content for their new streaming service just in time for Haloween. The Witches is a stylish flight of fancy, with wonderful sets, costumes, and the delightfully wicked performance by Anne Hathaway.
This movie differs in a few key ways from the 1990 version. The setting this time out is in Alabama in the early 1960s and follows the plight of a young black boy, Charlie (Jahzir Bruno) who is orphaned in the opening scene of the movie, and is then raised by his plucky grandmother, Agatha (Octavia Spencer) who dotes on him and does everything she ca do to charm the socks off the audience. Chris Rock narrates the story as an adult Charlie, telling his harrowing story in flashback. In the Dahl book, the boy is English, and his grandmother is Norwegian, so there is a cultural perspective point of view shift, and it’s a clever choice.
Charlie and encounter a witch, who tries to kidnap him at a grocery store. The grandmother is no stranger to witches, as when she was a child, her best friend was turned into a laying hen by a witch, and she believes that the withes prey upon vulnerable kids who society won’t miss, which is a nice narrative twist for these characters.
The two of them flee their home to the Grand Orleans, the fanciest hotel in the region, where Agatha knows some of the help. There they can wait out and evade the witch who wished to do horrible things to Charlie. Children, according to Agatha are mere dog poop to witches, and their existence is devoted to the eradication of kids. And, there’s nobody but rich white folks at this hotel, so there shouldn’t be any witches haunting the hotel. They’re only after the poor kids, after all. Unfortunately for them, the hotel just so happens to be hosting a convocation of a witch coven. Ah, fate!
The Grand High Witch (Hathaway) struts, preens, and cackles her way through the hotel, where the Maitre D’ (Stanley Tucci putting on a cheeky Alabama accent) struggles to accommodate their eccentric gathering. It doesn’t take long for the witches to turn on the child guests of the hotel and have taken to turning them into mice… including Charlie, who discovers that his own pet mouse also happens to be a girl victim of the witches.
Charlie discovers that the coven plans on turning all the children in the world into mice, and the race is on to see if he and his new found mice buddies can foil their plot without getting squished. The story should be a familiar one, and it doesn’t exactly break new ground, but it is frantic and entertaining, with terrific performances from the adult leads.
This movie also manages to preserve some of the darker and more sinister elements of the book. The 1990 version had a bit more of a happily ever after closure, which Dahl found very disappointing. This film retains the more unfortunate consequences featured in the book, but with an added kick of a revenge plot.
Hathaway, like Huston before her, was perfectly cast for this role. She is both glamorous and sinister. Charming and wicked. Her famously luminous eyes and toothy grin put to great use as the Grand High Witch. The witches in this version have rictus grins, papered over by cake makeup that suggests the crocodilian true nature of their visages. They also have malformed digits and are all naturally bald, so when their true forms are shown, they look to be something like Dren from Splice. Creepy, to be sure! Even so, they don’t quite live up to the standard presented by Jim Henson’s team, who gave us perhaps the most frightening witched ever seen in the 1990 version, and the master puppeteering in that film still sets a high bar to meet.
The change of venue, on the Alabama gulf coast, was an interesting one. I think there were some really interesting ideas in play here, but you can’t help but think that, like the witches covering up their true selves, this movie papered up the Jim Crow south for a more kid-friendly visualization of the South in the sixties. I also couldn’t help but note some of the nods to The Help, a movie that helped make Octavia Spencer a star, as there were moments where Agatha managed to make some things right. The antebellum south with a bit of a makeover. I think they could have pushed this aspect of the story a bit more.
This movie felt short to me. The plot was pretty railroad straight, and I think they could have added some more embellishment. I think showing the witches actually EAT some mice would have been beautifully scary, but perhaps that might have pushed the gateway a little to far open for what they wanted to do, but from a horror standpoint that would have been great. Add some real dire circumstances for the mice/kids… even if it were just suggsted.
As it stands, I think this is a great movie to introduce young children to as an introduction to scary material. The witches truly are alien things, and Anne Hathaway is a formidable villain, eminently watchable. The sets and the visuals are all first rate, and if you loved the Roald Dahl story, this is a good version of that book. I think if you did back to back Witch watches, that could make a fun double header, much like doing a Cat People back to back to compare and contrast. Both good movies in their own right, if a little different.
The Witches is rated PG, and is currently playing exclusively on HBO Max. It certainly is suitable for younger children, of six and up… though it will probably be pretty scary for those under ten, but just scary enough!