The witches have arrived. This HBO Max original is a retelling of Roald Dahl’s truly frightening children’s book, “The Witches.” With iconic tales such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda” and “James and the Giant Peach,” Dahl has an impeccable way of taking his audience to imaginary realities that are unforgettable and rich. “The Witches” is a story about a boy who comes face to face with real witches who hate children, so much so that they plot the riddance of all the children in their area. The 2020 film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, known for “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump,” sets the story in a new location and changes some details, creating a reimagination that is captivating but lacks any tinge of darkness found in its original telling.
Zemeckis’ “The Witches” takes place in Alabama in the late 1960s, contrasting the novel’s location in Norway and England, but this new setting generates a more racially diverse cast. The film kicks off with narration by Chris Rock, whose voice immediately brings the story to life in a humorous manner. Rock voices the older version of the young boy protagonist (Jahzir Bruno) who is quickly orphaned, causing him to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) in Demopolis, Alabama. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer plays the role of the warm, all-wise grandmother effortlessly, and her character quickly pulls the young boy out of his sadness.
After he unknowingly encounters a witch, his grandmother shares her vast knowledge of witches and how to spot them. The grandma describes witches as women who look like ordinary nice ladies, but are really demons in human form. The film’s excessive use of lightning in conjunction with a close-up when the grandma shares anecdotes about witches make it feel more like a campfire story than a caution about real, dangerous witches.
This is not the first adaptation of Roald Dahl’s genius. The novel was first adapted in 1990 by director Nicolas Roeg — known for 1970s thrillers such as “Don’t Look Now” and dramas such as “Walkabout” — into a truly unsettling and hair-raising film. Academy Award and Golden Globe winner Anjelica Huston dominated the movie as the Grand High Witch, the ruthless ruler of all witches. Her true form was grotesque and gnarly, leaving big shoes to fill for the new adaptation’s makeup team and for Anne Hathaway, who plays the same nefarious role.
Although Hathaway has won numerous awards and is well-versed in the acting world, this was her first time playing a villain. Hathaway’s Grand High Witch is commanding, luxurious and diabolical. There is no doubt that she hates children and takes pleasure in scheming their ruin. Even her voice sounds like it is luring you to a trap, while her demonic smile and clawlike hands make you want to run away. In short, Hathaway’s performance makes the film.
Her sumptuous assemblage of witches poses as the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and holds a meeting in the ballroom of the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel. This hotel happens to be the same one that the young boy and his grandmother just checked into as an attempt to dodge another witch encounter. Once the boy overhears the witches’ plot to turn all the children into mice and is turned into a mouse himself, the journey begins to defeat the witches and bring down the Grand High Witch.
Even with our protagonist as a mouse, the movie still retains attention and takes viewers on a fun adventure. And yet, the vibrant coloring of the movie makes it come off as more of a grandiose Christmas motion picture than a Halloween scare, with cinematography more suitable for a wondrous story such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” At best, the movie will spook some children into refusing candy from any so-called nice-looking ladies. Still, although ‘The Witches” may not be as scary and dark as the novel or the ’90s adaptation, the film still has a chance of bewitching you.