Having lost his parents in a car crash, young Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno) comes to live with his wise Grandma (Octavia Spencer). She warns him to be on the lookout for witches and to know their tell-tale signs: itchy scalps covered by wigs and their 3-digit fingers and feet. They are everywhere and a constant threat to the children that they despise so much and want to destroy. Having encountered a witch, Hero Boy flees to an Alabama country hotel with Grandma. Run by the snooty Mr Stringer (Stanley Tucci), the hotel is also playing host to a group of women who are against the cruelty of children. Snooping on their activities, Hero Boy observes the tell-tale signs of witches and is turned into a mouse by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). Now he must race against time and foil the witches’ dastardly plan for the children of America…
The Verdict: The late Roald Dahl had a wonderful way of telling children’s stories from a child’s point of view. His wildly imaginative and often grotesquely dark and funny books captured the imagination of many children growing up, including this one. One also has to imagine that one of his best-known stories, The Witches, caught the attention of director Robert Zemeckis and his producing partners Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron. Previously adapted by Nicolas Roeg into a 1990 film that left quite an impression on a generation, The Witches has now been updated to the 21st Century and given an American make-over befitting its North and South American production team. Originally intended for cinemas this Hallowe’en, it’s now available to stream on PVOD for housebound families. The result is a witchy brew of filmmaking styles that doesn’t quite mix together to the right effect.
The spirit of Dahl is there in the screenplay, by Zemeckis, del Toro and Kenya Barris. They keep the basic plotline of our mouse heroes and Grandma fighting back against a coven of child-hating witches, along with some of Dahl’s deliciously grotesque dark humour. It works in part due to the strong, rock-like presence of Spencer as Grandma and some decent CGI-motored rodents to bring some weight to the frantic proceedings. A fussy, preening Tucci as the hotel manager is a delight too. Dahl can be tricky to pull off with the right tone. Get the right balance of tone and humour and you have a much-loved film like Matilda. Though Zemeckis tries hard, something is missing in the mix here which he almost but not quite pulls off. Transposing the story to an American Deep South setting in 1968 takes away from some of its oddball European charm. Zemeckis misses the opportunity to play up the local colour and superstitions of Deep South culture in the way that the late Alan Parker’s Angel Heart did so effectively.
For better or worse, what you get instead of carefully distilled Dahl is an uneven mix between Dahl and an over-the-top Looney Tunes cartoon. Nowhere is this more evident than in the miscasting of Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch. While she can play bad girls when she wants to, the usually sweet Hathaway seems to have walked in from a different film here. Channelling Cruella de Vil meets the Bride Of Frankenstein, she’s just not witchy enough to be credibly threatening. Burdened with an exaggerated foreign accent to which she purrs like her black cat, she also has a cartoonish CGI mouth with razor teeth which takes away from whatever performance she can offer. She plays a character to be laughed at rather than frightened by, thereby dissipating some of the film’s build-up in the process. Hathaway doesn’t imbalance the film as a whole, but a lack of directional control on Zemeckis’ part means that the film more often wobbles uncertainly. While not a disaster, this new version of The Witches is light on Dahl and short on magic. Passable family fare but it won’t cast a spell on you.
Rating: 2.5 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
The Witches (USA / Mexico / PG / 105 mins)
In short: Short on magic
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Starring Anne Hathaway, Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock.