In 1983, novelist Roald Dahl released The Witches, a fantasy about a little boy battling evil, child-hating, witches. That book was turned into a well-regarded (though financially unsuccessful) 1990 movie, which was pretty creepy to eight-year-old me. Thirty years later, Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo del Toro have teamed up for what aims to be a more faithful adaptation of the book, an uneven production that has enjoyable high-points, but peaks in the middle, before building to a frustratingly dull final act.
I have never read the book and I haven’t seen the first movie in thirty years, so I can’t give much in the way of comparison. This version does a good job of setting up the concept of witches, has energetic performances, some decent over-the-top special effects and one really strong scene. But it does such a poor job of adding depth to its world, leaving every witch except one as essentially an extra. The first half, introducing the major characters and the plot, is reasonably entertaining. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough substance to the adventure to sustain the whole runtime, leading to a massive letdown of a climax. Overall, it is okay; still, it could’ve been so much more.
The story begins with a boy going to live with his loving grandma in Alabama after the death of his parents in a car accident. Soon, she informs him that witches are real and out to get him, so they decide to hide out at a fancy hotel. Unbeknownst to them, a group of witches, led by the malevolent Grand High Witch, are meeting at the hotel. The boy must now summon his bravery to save the world from these horrible creatures.
Zemeckis (who directed) and his cowriters, del Toro and Kenya Barris, add the element of race to the mix by making the boy and his Grandma (played by a charming Octavia Spencer) black and relocating the story to 1960s Alabama. The hotel is populated by rich white people, which also brings in ideas of class. Interestingly, they don’t do anything with either of these themes. Race barely factors into events and class doesn’t at all. It is curious they would make these changes to the material and then not use them for tension or complexity or even to stack the odds further against their heroes. It’s a big example of how The Witches (streaming on HBO Max) stays so firmly on the surface level, to its own detriment.
However, the surface level is kind of fun for a while. The makeup and CGI, particularly those that transform the actresses playing the witches into grotesque monsters with talons and gaping mouths, are effective. The highlight involves our first real look at them. The boy hides under a stage as the Grand High Witch reveals her plans to her coven and allows them to take off their disguises. That is the only time when the horror of the boy’s situation truly hits home. There, Zemeckis pours everything into making these villains seem as intimidating, conniving and unstoppable as possible. What can one boy and his Grandma do in the face of this hideous group? In that scene, he is helped immensely by Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch, in one of the few moments where her performance actually works.
Hathaway certainly relishes the absurdity of the role, leaning into a silly accent and outsized body language, practically gnashing her teeth at every opportunity. It’s impossible to notice anything else when she is onscreen. That works when she is talking down to the hotel manager (an amusing, if underused, Stanley Tucci) or firing up her followers. The movie doesn’t fully take advantage of her. Since the adventure becomes so slight almost as soon as it gets started, the witches don’t have much to do. That turns Hathaway’s scenery-chewing into a distraction, instead of a compelling antagonist. I find that to be more the fault of the writing than the acting.
Either way, it serves to show how The Witches began with some good ideas, yet is unable to follow through to become something memorable. There is just barely enough for a mild recommendation to fans of the source material or people who like scary kid’s movies. Though I have a hard time imagining this will evolve into a cult favorite, like what happened with the 1990 version.
3 out of 5
Jahzir Bruno as Hero Boy
Octavia Spencer as Grandma
Anne Hathaway as Grand High Witch
Stanley Tucci as Mr. Stringer
Codie-Lei Eastick as Bruno Jenkins
Chris Rock as Narrator
Kristin Chenoweth as voice of Mary
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro