From Matilda to James & The Giant Peach to Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and more, the various film adaptations of Roald Dahl classics were very much a formative and defining element of my childhood. They blended my love of literature with my love of film, and vitally for a kid who grew up loving the spookier side of things, there was always something a little bit scary about them. None scarier, in my mind, than 1990’s The Witches! That iconic image of Anjelica Huston pulling back her face to reveal a true nightmare beneath is one my six year old self will never forget, so you can imagine my apprehension as it became The Witches’ turn to receive an inevitable 21st century update.
Taking place in the changed setting of 1960s Alabama, The Witches tells the story of a young boy (played by Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) who moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after the death of his parents. After an altercation with a witch in their home town, the pair decide to lay low at a luxury hotel, unaware that the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) herself and her followers are convening there for a meeting to further their cause of ridding the world of its children.
I’ll start with the positives. I really like the changed setting and time period of 2020’s The Witches. Something very noticeable about Roald Dahl’s literature and his various past film adaptations is the distinct lack of any persons of colour in key roles, and the decision to make the film’s central family a black family is simple and sensible, providing an interesting subthread in the setting of 1960s Alabama. Interesting also is the inclusion in parts of some old African American healing practices. Put in direct opposition to the more fantastical, comic book magic of the witches, I think it creates an interesting mix of cultures, giving the film feeling of dynamic history.
And now for the not so good. In comparison to the now cult classic 1990 version, The Witches just doesn’t cut it in terms of pure macabre and scare factor. As you might anticipate from a kid’s film in 2020, there is something of a unwillingness to really ‘go there’ in terms of the horror imagery that made the first adaptation so memorable to so many children of the 90s. Grotesque physical effects have been replaced with slick looking CGI, and the visceral nature of the aesthetic simply isn’t there. Various aspects of the witches’ character design are effective, but there is still a feeling of gloss that prevents them from being truly frightening. Of course, you’ll have to ask an eight year old if you want a true demographic opinion!
The word that I tend to always come back to when assessing these modern day remakes is sanitised, and The Witches absolutely fits into that category. All of the core components of the story are there, and this version even does something that the 1990 version did not in staying faithful to the original ending of Roald Dahl’s book, but there is just something about it that doesn’t feel as visceral, as gross, as overall effective.
To say that Anjelica Huston’s 1990 performance as the Grand High Witch is iconic is an understatement, and Anne Hathaway was always going to have a tough time stepping into her shoes. Ultimately, Hathaway is fine, but nothing more than fine. She certainly commits to the character, but for some reason the over the top vague Eastern European accent and camp villainy just don’t work quite as well for her as they did for Huston.
For some reason the film’s central orphaned boy’s name is never revealed, but nevertheless Jahzir Kadeem Bruno is an endearing presence both in physical form and later in voice form when condemned to his magical mouse form. Star of the show for me is Octavia Spencer as Grandma. When you consider how much work Spencer must have had to do acting alone with CGI mice for company, she manages to inject a lot of heart into the role, not to mention a handful of funny quips that made me, perhaps not chuckle, but certainly smile. Anne Hathaway’s Grand High Witch is certainly the more ‘standout’ character, but there is just something about the warmth and sincerity of Spencer’s Grandma that won me over.
Overall, this new adaptation of The Witches is by no means a ‘bad’ movie, it just isn’t one that particularly makes an impression. It gets points for being a more inclusive and diverse imagining of a previously very white story, but the lack of nasty bite leaves it feeling just a little bit too ‘nice’ for me personally. Ultimately, though, why take the word of 30 year old if ten year olds love it? I suppose only time will tell how it fares as a future favourite.