Released: 10th December
Seen: 20th December
In 1983, Roald Dahl released his 14th novel The Witches and his story of a boy and his grandma going up against a coven of witches has always been somewhat polarizing. On the one hand, it’s a best selling novel that recently appeared on the BBC’s list of Top 100 most influential novels and on the other it’s been accused of being a misogynistic text ever since it released (and considering that the main villain is, essentially, every woman who isn’t a kindly old grandma and it was written by Roald Dahl… yeah, yeah that’s definitely there).
It’s also been adapted numerous times into other media, most famously into the 1990 film starring Angelica Huston in one of her most iconic roles. So, in this period where we’re just remaking everything because originality is hard, it’s time to remake The Witches because of some reasons… and OK, maybe this time it kind of worked but come on, Dahl has other books. Adapt The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, you cowards!
The Witches follows a young boy named… uh… OK the movie calls him “Hero Boy” because picking an actual character name would take effort so we’re calling him H.B. because I don’t feel stupid calling him H.B. So, H.B. (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) is a regular young boy until one snowy day his family has a car accident and both parents die because that’s just what happens to adults in children’s stories. He goes to live with his grandma (Octavia Spencer) who tells him all about witches and also coughs a lot without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet from other people which makes her the biggest monster in the entire film.
Anyway, because Grandma suspects that there are witches near her home, they escape to an expensive hotel that Grandma’s friend used to work in (because that’s how hotels work… you can totally get a comped room and meals because your cousin was a chef there at one point). Of course, because fate has a sense of humour, that hotel is also where a coven of witches are hosting their big gathering, led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) who has a plan to turn the children of the world into mice. Can H.B. and Grandma stop the witches? Probably, I mean it’d be a pretty sad story if they couldn’t.
Some elements of this film are objectively great, like Anne Hathaway’s absolutely mental performance where she wanted to chew so much scenery that they had to make her mouth bigger just to fit it all in. While it might not be as iconic as Angelica Huston’s (like that was ever going to happen), it’s a cartoonish delight that is what makes this film worth watching. Every scene with her in it is a charming comedic highlight, you can tell that she was having a blast and that joy comes through to the audience.
Meanwhile, Octavia Spencer is on the exact opposite end of the spectrum and creates a kind and subdued performance that’s genuinely lovable. Her charm and warmth make you care for the kids she’s interacting with who barely even have names, let alone personalities. Hell, if anything she’s the main character of the film… she’s just in a completely different film to Anne, and possibly even a different genre.
The entire film feels like it’s pulling in too many directions, no one’s in the same movie as each other because no one’s performances feel like they’re meant to be in the same scene. It creates a slightly jarring experience when going from line to line. This would probably be fine if the ones who were outrageous were the witches, it’d almost be like when Frank N Furter pops up in Rocky Horror and the film becomes absolutely bananas but that’s not what happens here. The film just can’t seem to pick a tone and so it goes for all of them and hopes that one of them might work out.
Meanwhile the kids who are meant to be our main characters end up being personality vacuums. H.B is sad all the time (until he becomes a mouse and then boom, completely different person) and another kid is always eating and that’s it. They don’t have personalities or reasons to like them, they’re there because Roald Dahl wrote them in his book and the filmmakers had to hire them but it’s clearly more interested in the grandma and the grand high witch… which, admittedly is easy because you have to keep an eye on Anne in case she eats the entire backdrop before you finish the take, but it doesn’t serve the film.
What also doesn’t serve the film are the visual effects which are less than impressive. When in doubt this film uses CGI for everything, be it the mice or the transformations or a cat that could have easily been trained to do about 90% of the things it does in the film. The problem with this CGI is that it stands out so much to the point of being distracting, it never blends quite right and also I’m reminded of when they did a lot of this same stuff in the 90s with a combination of makeup and puppets and it was better back then.
While The Witches has some incredibly strong performances and more than a few moments that pull out a good laugh, on the whole it just feels like it’s only being made because the 30 year nostalgia cycle demands we revisit The Witches again, even though the first one is still well loved. If you can stream it or it pops up on TV it’s certainly an enjoyable few hours, but it’s not going to be much more than just enjoyable, and definitely nowhere near as iconic as the version with Angelica Huston.