In our house, one film that gets watched every Halloween season is Nicolas Roeg’s surreal and darkly wholesome adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Now, some 30 years later, legendary director Robert Zemeckis is tackling Dahl’s classic novel, with Anne Hathaway stepping into the role of the Grand High Witch, and the results are a highly entertaining and adorably charming fantasy film that will make for perfect viewing for families during this spooky season (and in the future as well).
For the uninitiated, The Witches follows an unnamed young boy (Jahzir Bruno) who moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after both of his parents are killed in an automobile accident. As he settles into his new life, it’s the responsibility of his grandmother to fill him in on all sorts of life lessons, including letting him in on a secret: witches are real, and he needs to be very careful around them, because their motivation is to kill human children and witches will try and lure kids in by offering them candy and controlling them with their powerful gazes. One day at the local grocery story, the boy has a run-in with a serpent-clad witch, and he narrowly escapes, which prompts his grandmother to book them a trip to a swanky resort so they can lay low for a while.
Little do they know, the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) and her coven of crone-y followers have also arrived at the same hotel for a special meeting so they can put their plan in motion of ridding the world of children by transforming them into mice. The boy stumbles upon their meeting, and from there, he must find a way to put a stop to the Grand High Witch’s nefarious agenda, and he enlists the help of his grandmother, as well as fellow youngster Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick), to outwit these supernatural baddies before their plan goes too far.
As someone who is only moderately familiar with Dahl’s novel (I read it a few times, but that was more than 30 years ago), so my frame of reference with this story comes mostly from the previous filmic version of The Witches. That being said, there were elements of this latest adaptation from Zemeckis that were far closer to the spirit of Dahl’s original story than we saw in Roeg’s take, and I really appreciated how well this screenplay from Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro was able to retain the spirit of the novel, but also add in some touches, like setting the film in Alabama back in 1968, that elevates the children’s fantasy into something a bit more thoughtful, especially in regards to the issues of racism, without ever being heavy-handed with its messaging, either (this still is a kids’ movie, after all).
The mythology of the titular creatures in this iteration of The Witches follows Dahl’s approach more closely, too. Square-toed shoes are out, pointy shoes are back in, and the fact that they have exaggerated nostrils (so they can sniff out children better) is more of a focal point here as well. The one big change in The Witches (2020) is any sort of face removal done by the Grand High Witch, and instead, the witches have Dark Knight Joker-esque slits on the sides of their mouths, which open to reveal their overly toothy grins. I’m not sure I totally love that change, because part of the magic of Roeg’s The Witches was whenever Anjelica Huston would rip her face off, revealing a hideously grotesque visage just below the surface. This version of The Witches relies more on CGI elements than the previous adaptation, which has its plusses and minuses; the extended grinning of the Grand High Witch sometimes looks a bit silly, but when the boy and Bruno are transformed into mice, having the advantages of technology now really gives Zemeckis more freedom with these characters that provides this version of The Witches with a grander sense of adventure overall as the tiny rodents can get into far more active shenanigans this time around.
Also, there are some hilarious bits involving the Grand High Witch’s cat that often left me cackling at times, and again, being able to utilize the digital arts to bring the creature to life here really adds an extra bit of humor to the film as a whole.
Hathaway is clearly having a ball in The Witches (2020), too, as she infuses her take on the Grand High Witch with the perfect blend of camp and menace, and I must say that the Devil Wears Prada fan inside me was extremely happy to see her reunited with Stanley Tucci here, as he plays the hotel’s manager, Mr. Stringer. Spencer’s performance in The Witches (2020) also adds a lot of warmth, and I love how proactive her character gets throughout the film, which makes sense because we learn that she’s something of a healer (in the book, her character was a former witch hunter, but her past is slightly more ambiguous in this iteration), and anything that gives Spencer an opportunity to do more is always a plus in my book.
While it may not have the menacing undertones and heightened surrealism that we saw in the 1990 film, Zemeckis’ take on Dahl’s The Witches is wholly faithful to the spirit of the book, but still finds ways to add in some new surprises that never feel at odds with the author’s original vision for this story. Featuring a top-tier cast who bring a lot to the table, The Witches (2020) is a wonderful new cinematic exploration of this material that will surely delight viewers of all ages.
Movie Score: 4/5