Roald Dahl’s delightfully terrifying novel The Witches follows the tradition of realizing that some of the stories that entranced you the most as a child are by writers with insidious pasts and politics. Dahl’s anti-Semitism is well-documented and the readings of his texts as misogynistic are worth considering.
On the other hand, Robert Zemeckis’s The Witches is like a dessert you order because it evokes nostalgia. When the dessert arrives, it is in the form of a slightly over-the-top presentation, and you wonder whether you’ve made the right choice. Then, you take a bite and suddenly, you think, “There’s the flavour!” And while the sharpness of the memory conjured by that flavour dulls fairly quickly, you have a pleasant enough time that you don’t regret ordering it – even though you’re not likely to enthusiastically recommend that someone follow in your footsteps.
The classic 1990 adaptation of The Witches, featuring an all-time legendary camp performance by Anjelica Huston, was more sharply drawn and more terrifying than Zemeckis’s redo, but it botched the ending in a bemusing deviation from the source material. This version, similarly, has its moments and features a deliciously committed camp performance from Anne Hathaway, who is truly in a fascinating and delightful part of her career. But the film is never as terrifying as its predecessor, in spite of a couple of excellent shots that portend a horror that never truly materializes.
The story is fairly straightforward – a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) is orphaned in a car accident and moves in with his grandmother (a wonderful as always Octavia Spencer). They go to vacation at a hotel where he is transformed into a mouse by a band of evil witches. Their mission is to eliminate children from the world. Our young hero, along with his grandmother and a couple of friendly mice, have to stop the evil Grand High Witch (Hathaway) from executing her devilish plan involving a series of high-end candy shops.
The camp and comedy shines in this adaptation. The interactions between Hathaway’s Grand High Witch and the hotel manager (Stanley Tucci) are the best example of this. The slapdash comedy approach to their interactions is especially timed beautifully. Even more than this particular running gag of humour, however, is the emotional pathos that the movie mines in its earlier segments.
Chris Rock’s voiceover work at the beginning is unnecessary because it tells the audience things they can already see on screen. It is rendered further redundant when Spencer explains what witches are, what they seek, and why we’re meant to be frightened of them. But where this adaptation succeeds over its predecessor is in understanding the trauma of loss. The sequence where Spencer tries to bring her grandson out of his grief is the film’s most heartfelt and touching.
The rest of the film is just fine and nothing more. Zemeckis has gained a reputation for visual flair and that is certainly true here, but something he has lost as a filmmaker is the ability to tell a story whose depths match the visuals. There is nothing wrong with an occasionally alarming, but overall pleasant children’s fable with some excellent performances, yet it’s difficult to shake the feeling that there was something better trapped, waiting in a mousetrap.
The Witches is available to stream on HBO Max in the United States and will be released theatrically (maybe) beginning in late October.