Movie Review: Roald Dahl’s The Witches

With the strangest Hallowe’en in memory now behind us, all we’re left with are a bunch of candy wrappers (if we were lucky) and the seasonal movies that arrived on our screens in the past week. One of those films is ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES. In markets that have HBO Max, you’ll find it streaming there. For us in Hong Kong, it’s playing in the cinemas.

Based on the children’s book of the same name by the noted but highly problematic author, this version of THE WITCHES shifts the story’s locale from Norway and England to 1960s Alabama, and centers around an African-American boy and his grandmother. It also returns the story’s ending back to its roots after Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 film version created a new ending that Dahl was very vocal about in his disdain.

As in the book, the story is narrated (Chris Rock, DOLEMITE IS MY NAME) by an unnamed boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) who goes to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer, MA; INSTANT FAMILY; THE SHAPE OF WATER; HIDDEN FIGURES) after his parents are killed in a car accident. One day while out shopping, the boy comes in contact with a mysterious woman who offers him some candy. Grandma assumes the woman is a witch, and the two quickly pack their bags and head for a fancy hotel where her cousin works, figuring that witches only prey on poor Black children, not rich White ones. Once at the hotel, however, the boy realises that they’ve entered the lion’s den when he stumbles across an international coven of witches that is meeting there under the name of the “Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children”. Discovered by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, THE HUSTLE; OCEAN’S 8; COLOSSAL; THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA), she turns the boy into a mouse, and it’s up to him, his new friends, Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick, HOLMES & WATSON) and Daisy/Mary (Kristin Chenoweth, TV’s PUSHING DAISIES and GLEE), who have also been turned into mice, and Grandma to stop the witches before they can work their evil magic on children everywhere.

ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES is a bit of mixed bag. While there are some good performances and a few laugh-out-loud moments, it doesn’t quite reach the heights it should to be considered a winner. The screenplay was first written by Guillermo del Toro (THE SHAPE OF WATER; PAN’S LABYRINTH; HELLBOY) a few years ago, who envisioned it as stop-motion animated film. For whatever reason, it never happened, and Oscar®-winning director Robert Zamekis (ALLIED; CAST AWAY; CONTACT; FORREST GUMP; the BACK TO THE FUTURE trilogy; WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?) and Kenya Barris (the creator of the BLACK-ISH TV franchise) took the project over. Del Toro also gets a producer credit for his efforts. It might be due to this mishmash of styles that harms the film. It’s a bit too scary for young children but not inventive enough to be of interest to adults, and that Zamekis magic that audiences saw in his early films is just not on view here. In the end, we’re left with a dime store Tim Burton-meets Ichi the Killer dark fantasy.

To her credit, Hathaway chews up the scenery, channelling her best imitation of Melania Trump to comedic effect. Whether you appreciate her vamping will depend on how much you like Hathaway as an actress. Spencer is wonderful as the no-nonsense Grandma with a heart of gold. Her scenes with young Bruno are lovingly sweet. Stanley Tucci (SPOTLIGHT; THE HUNGER GAMES franchise; THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA), who appears as the hotel’s manager, Mr. Stringer, is disappointingly underused, though it may have been for the best. His prosthetic hairpiece is awful, with its latex edge in full view sitting above his brow. I’m not sure why that wasn’t fixed in post-production. For a director as accomplished as Zamekis, that blunder was amateur.

ROALD DAHL’S THE WITCHES opened last Thursday in Hong Kong. I don’t think it’s as bad as audiences and other critics are saying it is but it’s not great either.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, October 30th, 8:30 am HK time!

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