You remember the last movie they made of Roald Dahl’s The Witches? You remember how it was a lot more scary than any kids film should really be? Well that’s okay because there is another version now that is nowhere near as frightening.
In fact let’s get this out of the way right out of the gate, this new film is not as effective as Nic Roeg’s 1990 film in any respect. It jettisons the darkest elements of the book, it isn’t as tense or as discomforting, the monster design is not as grotesque and no computer animated mouse is ever going to compare to Jim Henson’s masterful puppetry (just ask Yoda). Also, Stanley Tucci, in this case at least, is a poor man’s Rowan Atkinson.
None of this means that this isn’t a fun film in its own right though. The first question you have to ask with any remake (or second book adaptation) is whether it is giving you anything different and in this case the 1960s Alabama setting, the black leads and the Motown soundtrack make it feel quite unlike what came before. It speaks to the universality of a Dahl’s writing that it can fit as well in very varied geographical and cultural settings. The movie also feels like it stops to examine the trauma of losing a parent in a way that, despite the relative commonality of such an event in Dahl’s work, none of his books or the films they have inspired really do.
The real coup here though is in two bits of casting. First off there is Octavia Spencer who is so warm and delightful as the Grandmother, with touches of Disney’s Mama Odie, who teaches her orphaned grandson of the existence of witches at what turns out to be a very fortuitous moment. She is quite unlike the Norwegian matriarch of the book but hers is an interpretation of the character that works as well in this American rather than European setting. (I am ignoring the fact that Spencer is getting cast as a grandmother at only forty eight.)
The real star of the film though, so much so that the energy of the movie goes up by one hundred percent any time she is on screen, is Anne Hathaway as The Grand High Witch. This character is one of the most genuinely scary villains of children’s fiction. She was the culmination of the series of oppressive females that Dahl vividly created in his books, from Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge to Mrs. Twit to George’s Grandmother (not even eclipsed by The Trunchbull) and magnificently played on conventions that are as old as storytelling itself. Angelica Huston nailed her performance in Roeg’s film but even following this, Hathaway is gleefully dark and convincingly evil in new and entertaining ways. It is in this antagonist that the influence of the screenwriter, one Guillermo del Toro, is most evident too. She never goes full on gnarly hag like Houston (incidentally the same age then as Hathaway is now) but she is disturbing in other ways; reminiscent of the vampires in del Toro’s Blade, the fairies of Hellboy and the ghosts of Crimson Peak. Her feet seem to be constantly flipping the bird as well, you’ll see what I mean when you watch the film.
While the visual effects that render Hathaway’s witch as a wide, grinning horror are effective, the rest of the CGI feels a little standard, even ropey in places. Director Robert Zemeckis has always been one for pushing the latest special effects, as with Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump, Contact and those motion capture animated films he was into for a while but here there is nothing new. In fact the talking mice feel somehow behind what they did with Stuart Little twenty one years ago.
Still, while incomparable to the Back to the Future films or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this is still in the top ten movies in Zemeckis’ varied career and will work well as a movie to watch with younger kids on Halloween night.
The Ripley Factor
In its essence this is a film about two women in competition against one another. They are both stereotypes to some extent but are strong and formidable and this is a female centred story. In all other versions the grandson is the protagonist but he feels like he’s a lesser player here, surrounded by such strong women. In fact there is even a girl among the gang of kids who get mousified who doesn’t feature in the book and seems to be there just to throw in a bit more estrogen.
Roald Dahl’s The Witches is available for home viewing now.