‘The Witches’ movie review: Roald Dahl’s story a brighter affair in Robert Zemeckis remake

  • Starring Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer, this new adaptation comes out just in time for Halloween
  • The horror is dialled down in this new version compared to the 1998s adaptation with Anjelica Huston
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This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Anne Hathaway, center, in a scene from "The Witches." (Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

No matter how you cut it, The Witches is a really disturbing tale. Not that one should expect anything else from Roald Dahl, but for some reason this story about a group of grotesquely disfigured women who hate children always seemed extra sinister even within his generally sinister oeuvre.

The 1990 movie adaptation featured the glamorous Anjelica Huston transforming into a bald, warty witch. For children of that era, that film from director Nicolas Roeg was a first foray into horror and a traumatic one at that.

This was clearly not lost on the people who hired Robert Zemeckis to do a new adaptation for another generation of children. There are scores of filmmakers who could have done their own Roeg-adjacent update, but this time they decided to soften the edges and lighten the tone.

And even though the story is still fundamentally troubling, Back to the Future and Polar Express director Zemeckis has put a brighter and more family friendly stamp on the material.

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Zemeckis shares credit for the new script with Academy Award-winning writer-director Guillermo del Toro, and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris. This unexpected but inspired grouping updates the story to focus on a Black American family in the 1960s South.

Chris Rock provides the voice of the protagonist, Hero Boy, who is recalling his experience first encountering witches as a young orphaned boy played by Jahzir Bruno.

After his parents die in a car crash, he moves in with his kind Grandma (Octavia Spencer) who has her own history with witches.

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When the boy has a run in with a witch in the local store, they flee the town to hide out at a fancy hotel. Unfortunately for them, the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) has decided to hold a convention there at the same time to hatch a plan that would turn the world’s children into mice.

Hathaway goes full vamp as the Grand High Witch with an over-the-top, vaguely Eastern European accent and grand gestures to match.

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Although less horrific than Huston was, Zemeckis can’t resist going big with the digital effects and gives Hathaway elaborate scars on the sides of her cheeks that open into a Venom-like mouth when she’s not in disguise.

It’s still more cartoon than horror, which seems to have been a guiding principle for the whole production.

Oddly the strongest parts of the film are before the whole witch aspect kicks in, when it’s just Grandma and Hero Boy getting used to life together after the horrific loss. Spencer is an unambiguous delight. Part of you might even wish that the film was just about their life together.

The CGI, at least, is more convincing 30 years after the last adaptation. Photo: TNSOnce they get to the hotel, it’s all plot and spells and crazy CGI mice and there’s barely any time to breathe or enjoy the characters – even Stanley Tucci as the hotel manager gets a little overshadowed by it all.

They’ve also decided to keep a running joke in about an overweight child (who also turns into a mouse) consistently being sidetracked by his desire for more food, which just feels cruel, outdated and cheap.

Still Zemeckis has done a fine job with the film on the whole. It’s not going to be as iconic as Roeg’s, but it should provide some nice family entertainment at home for Halloween. And, bonus, post-viewing nightmares and trauma should be minimal this time.

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