Anne Hathaway puts in a bonkers, assured performance as the Grand High Witch in a faithful, surprisingly frightening adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches”
Starring Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Kareem Bruno, Chris Rock, Codie-Lei Eastick, and Kristin Chenoweth
Roald Dahl is somewhat notorious for his love of scaring children out of their minds. Also for his somewhat startling anti-Semitism, which makes some of the rhetoric of “The Witches” more than just slightly problematic. It’s also uncertain how much he actually liked children. So much child cruelty occurs in his books, from Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker in “James and the Giant Peach” to Miss Trunchbull in “Matilda” even to Willy Wonka’s cavalier attitude towards child safety in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, it begs the question of whether Roald Dahl was a proponent for child abuse, was against it, or indeed just wanted something that would sell well.
Regardless, Dahl’s books push the comfort levels of children to the absolute max, and none of them more so than “The Witches”. While the anti-Semitism puts a nausea-inducing lens over the story’s rhetoric of evil hiding in plain sight, the revelation that all of the kindly, unassuming women for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children are actually murderous, bloodthirsty witches in disguise, who specifically target children is one of Dahl’s most terrifying concepts. Of course, this was spectacularly realised in Nicolas Rogers’ 1990 version of the film, where Anjelica Huston chewed her way through the entire film, with a horrific, nightmare-inducing mask to accompany her devilish performance. It was simply a terrifically effective piece of horror, while still being palatable to children.
With that version creeping into many millennial’s hearts as the definitive version, there’s always a risk of comparison when producing a new one. Not even because the original will be necessarily better, but more because the collective nostalgia of pretty much anything that was made in the 90s is enough for the public hive mind to brand it as an untouchable piece of pop culture. However, there is an awful lot to appreciate about this new version.
Robert Zemeckis, who has previously helmed Death Becomes Her, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? as well as classics such as Back to the Future and Polar Express knows how to construct a film that can appeal to children and adults alike, and is well-versed in making scary palatable to a younger audience too. It is commendable how much this film leans into the scarier elements while still retaining a child-friendly rating (bizarrely, rating standards have become increasingly stringent since the ‘90s, despite the media perception that there is more violence everywhere. Considering Tangled somehow has a PG rating, while Basil the Great Mouse Detective is a U). The typically chilling sequences of the witches all congregating and revealing their true forms is always going to be a standout moment here, and the movie does a good job at doing it in a different way to avoid comparison to the 1990 film. There’s no attempt to echo Anjelica Huston’s version of the Grand High Witch in Anne Hathaway’s performance, while adding further creepy detail in the visuals of the witch’s hands and the Grand High Witch’s unsettling elongated mouth.
Anne Hathaway shines here. It’s the sort of performance that one can only really get from an Academy Award winner in what could typically be considered a throwaway role. She puts her all into the part, and it somehow never seems to come across as pantomime or out of place. In fact, it’s one of the most assured and commanding parts of the entire film, so unwavering is her resolve to deliver an unsettling performance. Her line deliveries betray the mind of one who is genuinely sadistic, and unhinged, barely concealed beneath the expectations of a woman in her time period. When she’s fully unleashed in her witchy state, it’s also entirely believable and entirely chilling at points, with the special effects nicely complementing her acting choices. They never seem to diminish what she’s doing, either. The sight of the scars either side of her mouth opening up to reveal what is an unnatural number of teeth does not detract from the energy that she is giving it, but rather enhance the role.
The film also does well to expand upon the Witch’s role from what we already know in the novel, adding in far more demonstrations of her magical powers, such as an effortless, threatening levitation, a fierce supernatural strength and elongating arms that are cringe-inducing to watch in action. Perhaps the only jarring part of her performance is the presence of an accent that seems to defy all human laws of geography. Whether or not this was an intentional choice, or merely an American attempting a European accent is uncertain.
Additionally, Zemeckis includes some important depth of emotion, which is sorely lacking from the novel, and, indeed, the original movie. Following the lost of his parents, the titular boy (who, like in the novel, is never named, played ably by Jahzir Kareem Bruno) mourns and is despondent while his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) desperately tries to get through to him and buoy his spirits using techniques from fried chicken to Motown. Also showing Grandma’s downcast reaction at not being able to protect him from the witches is a nice touch, and they’re necessary to sell the relationship between the two characters to the audience, even though Grandma’s characterisation is inconsistent throughout.
What’s more, the movie is elevated by the incredible music by Alan Silverstri, which immediately dictates the tone, from mystical to sinister to tense at the drop of a hat. Coupled with the brilliant special effects, from silhouetted shapes within rain droplets on the window, to the humanoid mice, makes for a thoroughly engaging experience.
However, the movie is undeniably tonally different both to the book and to the previous film, and a large part of this comes from the decision to move the action from Norway and England to Alabama in 1968. There’s something so quintessentially British about Dahl’s work that there’s such a strange disconnect from moving the action from a sleepy, bleary seaside hotel to a hotel on a sprawling plantation in the American South. Altering the character of Grandma from a tough, chain-smoking and enigmatic old woman to a religious black woman who goes to church and dabbles in Voodoo is also an interesting change.
What’s more, setting this story in the American South with black protagonists in specifically 1968, which is the year that Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and the Civil Rights Act was passed, and yet not really leaning too much into race relations in this time period is a curious decision. Whether this decision was motivated purely to involve Octavia Spencer as the grandmother, or whether a lot of this subplot was lost in the editing process is unclear, but it does mean that the message of the film becomes a bit difficult to decipher. Is it about a universe in which chaotic, random things happen, or is it about a black kid who has become tired of being an underdog out of control of his life and strives to strike out against those who seek to put him down?
Tonally, the novel also felt much more gothic and earthy and serious. Both the boy and the grandmother find themselves entirely alone in the world, as the grandmother is displaced to England and the boy has lost his family. Here, however, we see a sense of community around Grandma, who regularly goes to church, and go to the convenience store in town. It diminishes that sense of isolation that made the original so sinister.
This movie is also tonally at odds with itself. While it’s important to strike a balance between the scary, heavier moments with lighter comedy, the scary moments are achieved quite successfully while some of the humour can feel quite forced and out of place. The decision to use Chris Rock as the narrator is a curious one, as it immediately gives the film a hokey, comedic feel, which is contrasted by the otherwise serious and threatening nature of the witches’ plot. It seems uncertain at times about just what tone it is striving for, and it very much feels like a film that once had a strong direction and creative vision but lost its nerve at some point during the process.
One criticism levied at this film is the concept that it’s not as spirited or accomplished as the original film, but I feel that’s an unfair judgement. Or, at least, it’s an unfair judgement for me, and lots of other viewers, to make. My opinions and evaluation of the original film is based upon my reaction to it when I was a child. When my threshold for appreciating a film was wholly different to as an adult. As a film, it is certainly more serious, but it also suffers from precisely the same pacing and plotting issues that this film does simply because that’s inherent in the structuring of the novel in the first place. Ultimately, whether or not this film has been successful will be decided by those children who have watched it, who critique the next adaptation of “The Witches” thirty years from now.
Another element that has been criticised is the extent to which the film sticks closely to the book, which honestly depends upon personal preference as to what you expect a film adaptation to do. There are inherent flaws in the plotting of the novel, as lots of Dahl’s books end up becoming horrendously episodic. A complex plot, “The Witches” does not have. Essentially the witches are unearthed and then they are dealt with in fairly swift fashion. There are very few twists and turns along the way, and that doesn’t exactly present well by today’s cinematic standards. Ultimately it depends upon the expectations of the viewer upon what they’re seeing. Lots of critics prefer for their adaptations to stick closely to the source material, while others want it to be enhanced and made better. Personally, I feel like a film cannot be criticised as a film adaptation for adapting the original novel closely, though my one gripe here would be that the decision to base it in 1960s American South detracts from the tone and intent of the original story instead of adding anything new.
Considering that this is the work of multiple Academy Award winners and nominees, and can be included within the same body of work as the man who directed cult classics such as Polar Express and Back to the Future is sure to raise an eyebrow, probably because the worst that can be said for this film is that it’s relatively unremarkable. Despite the hard work that has clearly gone into it from an acting standpoint, special effects and music, and it is a relatively enjoyable view, it just seems quite muddled and confused.
At the heart of it, Roald Dahl’s work does little to challenge its reader, and so too does this film do little to challenge its viewer. That does not diminish the spectacular performances and enjoyable view that is on offer here, and it’s simply unfair to compare it to previous adaptations crafted in a completely different historical context. There’s a lot to be appreciated in this film, even though it does not reach its full potential.