Robert Zemeckis The Witches is a dark Dahl triumph
Readers over a certain age will remember losing sleep over the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book The Witches, in which Anjelica Huston donned hideous prosthetics that are still unsettling to this day. It perfectly captured the spirit of Roald Dahl’s storytelling, which always towed the line between wonder and abject terror.
Robert Zemeckis (Back To The Future, The Polar Express) looks to strike that balance again in this new version, initially intended for cinemas but now distributed On Demand by HBO. Moving the action from England to 1960s Alabama, Chris Rock narrates the story of Charlie (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno), a young boy grieving the loss of his parents in a car accident.
Charlie goes to live with his grandmother Agatha (Octavia Spencer), a loving but no-nonsense woman who tells him of the existence of witches, creatures who live among humans and prey on children. When one is spotted in their town, they retreat to a nearby luxury hotel. Little do they know they have arrived at the same time as a National Convention of Witches, led by the maniacal Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), who plans to turn all children into mice.
Roald Dahl’s work is only sporadically adapted by Hollywood (this would be the 8th American film based on his children’s books, while a few others were made for British TV). So an adaptation of his work still feels like an event, and it’s a little sad that it couldn’t get a theatrical release. However, with half term approaching, there are children to be entertained. And be entertained they will.
Zemeckis has crafted a slick, fun family adventure that makes full use of modern effects without drowning in CGI like some of the director’s previous work. It’s funny, and setting the story in 60s Alabama gives the story a fresh tone. The opening twenty minutes are a touching story of a grandmother doing her best to drag a boy from the depths of grief with words of wisdom, home cooking, and Motown. It’s a sequence that shows the quality of Oscar winner Spencer, who becomes the type of grandparent we all wish for.
She’s the star player, doing the hard work of setting up the plot and allowing charming hero Bruno to just be a kid, rather than some precocious theatrical approximation. It’s their show for the most part, but there are a number of supporting actors also get to have fun, not least Hathaway as The Grand High Witch.
There’s a lot to live up to following Huston’s performance, but she understands what’s needed, which is over-the-top, malevolent insanity. Subtlety is left at check-in as she arrives in the hotel with piercing eyes and a wardrobe that would make Miranda Priestly swoon.
Her big moment is the ballroom scene, but where Huston became a slimy, pointy monster, her Grand High Witch is a digitally enhanced nightmare. With the witches looking on, her mouth contorts into a wide spiky grin, with fearsome claws and extendable arms.
Herein lies the warning: it can be pretty scary stuff, and if your children’s limit is Trolls World Tour then this may be a little much. However, if you’re familiar with the book or the previous movie, this delivers the creepiness you’ve been expecting.
Elsewhere, Stanley Tucci delivers some light laughs as the hotel’s beleaguered manager.
There are some stylistic quirks that don’t quite come off, not least a few CGI animals that feel artificial, and there isn’t much to Charlie’s friends beyond a gag about one of them being chubby and hungry all the time. Nonetheless, this is a wickedly funny and stylish take on a children’s classic that conjures family fun with a typically dark Roald Dahl edge.
The Witches is available for Video On Demand rental from 26th October.