Roald Dahl adaptations have been hit and miss, but most people rate Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches (1990) as one of the stronger interpretations. Even if Dahl thought it was “appalling” and in “bad taste” due to how terrifying parts of it were! That was perhaps to be expected from the filmmaker behind Don’t Look Now (1973), but ’90s kids still remember Roeg’s The Witches as a waypoint to grownup horror. And it’s a childhood favourite of mine, only tarnished by a tepid performance from its young star Jason Fisher and a cowardly ending.
Robert Zemeckis sounds like a director Dahl would have preferred over Roeg, back when his nascent filmography was dominated by the Back to the Future trilogy (1985-89) and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1987), but a lot has changed in the intervening decades. Zemeckis remaking a children’s movie feels like what it is; a surefire way to make a quick hit and put recent flops like The Walk (2015), Allied (2016), and Welcome to Marwen (2018) firmly behind him. He’s in Tim Burton purgatory. Sadly, The Witches has been shunted onto HBO Max in the US and will only be released digitally everywhere else thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Originally intended to be a stop-motion animation from Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water)—which perhaps explains Octavia Spencer’s presence?—Zemeckis later took over the project. Del Toro now gets a writer and producer credit (alongside compatriot Alfonso Cuarón), evoking memories of what happened to him on The Hobbit. I’m not sure exactly what survived from Del Toro’s animated vision, but The Witches certainly deviates from Dahl’s book and Roeg’s movie in some ways.
Abandoning Dahl’s then-present-day setting of 1980s Norway and England, The Witches instead whisks us across the pond to Alabama, 1968. Our orphaned boy hero is now Jack (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), who moves in with his spiritual Grandma (Spencer) after his parents are killed in a car crash. Reimagining these characters as black peopple living through a tough time for race relations is intriguing, but it doesn’t factor into the story much or add a fresh thematic layer. A black bellhop refuses a tip from Grandma out of solidarity for their lower-class status, but that’s about the only time racial politics plays any role. It only seems to be set in the late-’60s because it gives Zemeckis a chance to play Motown hits on the soundtrack, and perhaps wallow in nostalgia for a period he grew up in.
The broad sweep of Dahl’s story survives intact, although it feels like Jack and Grandma arrive at their opulent hotel sooner than expected. This is possibly because the spooky tales Grandma tells about witches are sadly missing, although we get a new one about a little girl being turned into a chicken when Grandma was younger. An incident that also creates a simmering grudge between our hero and villain, which is new territory.
It’s a shame we lose Dahl’s creepy anecdotes, especially as the most famous one about a girl being trapped inside an oil painting and eventually dying of old age was unforgettable. But maybe even Zemeckis realised he couldn’t outdo Roeg’s visualisation of that unsettling idea. He does retool another spine-tingling sequence from the book, when Jack is approached by a mesmerising witch with a green snake, but it’s mired by the artificiality of the CGI serpent and lacks the down-to-earth fear of being approached by an unfamiliar adult. (Something all kids are wary of thanks to ‘stranger danger’ teachings).
One benefit of getting to the hotel faster is that half the film feels like an extended climax, and we get to meet the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) a lot sooner. It’s an unenviable task to follow in the footsteps of Anjelica Huston (The Addams Family), whose take on the same character was so chilling, but Hathaway is a clear highlight of this newest version. She may lack Huston’s stature and presence, but she has enormous fun with a broad Nordic accent and rolling her r’s around in her mouth. The Grand High Witch also has more of an avian physicality outside of her human disguise (three fingers on each hand, one elongated toe, a Fright Night-style widening mouth of razor-sharp teeth) and more overtly supernatural abilities like telekinesis and levitation. It helps make her more of a monstrous threat.
Of course, a lot of changes exists purely because Zemeckis wants to play around with VFX. But there’s a distancing effect with CGI augmentation, so I doubt kids will find the Grand High Witch’s transformation anywhere near as frightening as Huston unfeeling her face to reveal a hideous monster designed by Jim Henson.
The one big improvement with The Witches is with the talking mice, who no longer have to be a combination of real mice and furry animatronics. The rodents are Stuart Little-style cartoonish by design, but more can be done with those characters with photorealistic VFX, and that helps the story once Grandma has to interact with talking critters for most of the last act. I also enjoyed seeing kids and witches transform into mice by shooting into the air on a rocket of purple smoke, as their empty clothes flutter to the ground.
The Witches is entertaining hokum with fun twists and changes for Roald Dahl fans to argue over. Events are close enough to satisfy most fans, unless you’re a purist and the different time and place makes you wince. Some alterations are definite improvements, it fixes one notorious complaint about Roeg’s ending, and Spencer and (especially) Hathaway are vivid enough to overshadow the weaker stuff around them. The Witches is perhaps too creepy for under-8’s, and yet not twisted enough for over-12’s, but if you’re aged in-between it may tickle a sweet spot.
But I don’t think Dahl would have preferred this over the old one he despised, particularly because of the racebending and change of location.
USA • MEXICO | 2020 | 106 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Robert Zemeckis.
writers: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris & Guillermo Del Toro (based on the book by Roald Dahl).
starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, Codie-Lei Eastick, Kristin Chenoweth (voice), Chris Rock (voice), Brian Bovell, Charles Edwards & Morgana Robinson.