Truth and Movies

The Witches

Review by Leila Latif @Leila_Latif

Directed by

Robert Zemeckis

Starring

Anne Hathaway Octavia Spencer Stanley Tucci

Anticipation.

Another The Witches adaptation but still no The Twits?

Enjoyment.

It’s not all good but it is good fun.

In Retrospect.

Kinda hard to concentrate when Anne Hathaway’s feet keep flipping me off.

Roald Dahl’s timeless children’s story is reimagined as a saccharine caper – but at least the cast are having fun.

We are all protective of the stories we loved as children. Like many people my age, Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ is of double importance to me, both as a treasured book and a beloved, albeit somewhat traumatising, film. Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation from 1990 was where my love of horror began; its sinister special effects could only be viewed with the lights on. The challenge of adapting such a cherished property for a new generation is therefore an unenviable one – and Robert Zemeckis does not entirely rise to the occasion.

This version of The Witches relocates the story from England to America’s Deep South while keeping the main plot points. A young orphaned boy (Jahzir Bruno) goes to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), but when a local witch takes an interest in him they escape to a luxury hotel unaware that the witches’ annual conference is being held there.

Despite retaining many of the tragic details from the book, Zemeckis’ film has been polished smooth and painted bright. Gone are the sisyphean nightmares for unlucky children, replaced with a single instance of a girl being transformation into a chicken. Gone is Anjelica Huston’s metamorphosis to a demonic monstrosity – an image which seared itself into a generation’s brains. Gone is much of the darkness, something that Dahl always felt children had an underestimated propensity for.

This is an altogether more wholesome caper, and many new elements work well. Octavia Spencer is wonderful as Grandma, transformed from a hard-living, chain-smoking Norwegian octogenarian to a God-fearing fiftysomething full of warmth and folksy wisdom. The styling for her character is worth the rental price alone; her bright floral prints, stiff hair and plethora of accessories seem to be coordinated to match the furniture and wallpaper of every room she enters.

Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch is almost as successful. She gives it her absolute all, chewing the scenery with a vague trans-European accent that often changes mid-sentence. Even when tasked with dire villainous monologues like, “You think you are so clever breaking into my room with a stolen key when everyone knows they keep a spare key at the front desk,” she rolls her Rs and furrows her brow with such aplomb it’s hard not be impressed.

Try as she might, however, hers is not a Grand High Witch for the ages. Her appearance is comically crap; a wide mouth that looks like a Snapchat filter and feet with a long, single middle toe that seems to be perpetually flipping the bird. Elsewhere, Stanley Tucci’s role is so thankless as to suggest he’s doing someone a favour, while Chris Rock’s shouty narration distracts more than it enhances. Worst of all are the CGI mice which have a plasticky, weightless quality that would normally be reserved for a far lower budget film than this (though the voice performances are adorable).

It’s not hard to imagine that Dahl would have hated this saccharine retelling. But The Witches 2020 casts a spell that is hard to entirely resist, primarily because everyone on screen seems to be having such a good time. It may not have stolen the original’s place in my heart but for my young daughter this was a thrilling introduction to Dahl’s world and a fun Halloween treat.

Published 27 Oct 2020

Tags: Robert Zemeckis The Witches

Anticipation.

Another The Witches adaptation but still no The Twits?

Enjoyment.

It’s not all good but it is good fun.

In Retrospect.

Kinda hard to concentrate when Anne Hathaway’s feet keep flipping me off.

Suggested For You

How come children’s horror movies aren’t scary any more?

By Nick Chen

Overly sanitised film like Goosebumps are depriving younger viewers of formative moviegoing experiences.

Robert Zemeckis: ‘We’re very close to having completely synthetic actors’

By Adam Woodward

The Hollywood filmmaker talks Welcome to Marwen, performance capture and predicting the rise of Trump.

How witches reclaimed their rightful place in popular culture

By Elisabeth O’Neill

Twenty years since Buffy first hit our screens, feminist horror fantasies are firmly back in fashion.

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design