PLOT: After finding himself face to face with a witch, a young boy, and his grandmother, decide to spend some time away from their home until they feel safe again. Unfortunately for the two, that very hotel is having a convention that includes a number of witches looking to turn children into mice.
REVIEW: In 1990, visionary director Nicolas Roeg presented audiences with a magical family film – something impactfully unique from the filmmaker – it was called THE WITCHES. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, this wild fantasy told the story of a young boy who faces off against ghastly witches with devious plans to rid the world of children. It’s a dark fairy tale, but one that left an impression thanks to the eerily magical script and a marvelous performance from Anjelica Huston. And like all good things that we grew up with, this creepy children’s fable is back for another telling. Directed by Robert Zemeckis from a script by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro, can this classic story re-inspire (and maybe even terrify) the family once again? Let’s conjure up a spell or two and find out!
Jahzir Bruno stars as a young boy who tragically loses both his parents. Left to the care of his loving grandmother (Octavia Spencer), he finds that his troubles are far from over. While they’re out shopping, a strange woman attempts to give the boy candy; the young man quickly declines the offer. When he reveals this to his grandmother, she becomes increasingly concerned. She tells him that the woman was a witch and that he may not be safe. The two make arrangements to stay at a swanky hotel for a while to keep out of harm’s way. Yet fortune is not smiling as they discover a coven of witches having their convention at the same location. When the boy overhears the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) announcing plans to turn all the children into mice, he must work together with a couple of surprise friends and his grandmother to save the day.
As a fan of Roeg’s exemplary version of this classic tale, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this modern take. Thankfully, I was pleased to note that not only Guillermo del Toro had a hand in the script, but that Zemeckis was in the director’s chair. While it shares qualities with the delightful original, the re-telling brings much of the filmmakers’ own voice to this creepy family fable. The visual effects of the talking mice, the goofy manner in which the villains shed their human image, and the cleverness of the story are all in good hands with the filmmaker. While it may be a bit scary for the super young ones, even the dark nature of turning children into mice feels strangely charming – this version isn’t nearly as disturbed as the superior vision that Roeg offered. Yet there’s still much to appreciate. From the storytelling aspect, as well as the way the filmmaker interjects the engaging score by Alan Silvestri.
While the young actors are all terrific, much of the attention this film is getting is for Ms. Hathaway’s excellent work. The actress is unafraid of taking this character as over-the-top as necessary, complete with a German accent. You could compare this to the brilliant work from Ms. Huston, as both have energy and give the young ones a bit of a fright. Both performances work on different levels, and both fit the filmmakers’ take on the classic tale they are a part of – however, Huston’s creation was far more terrifying and nuanced. As well, Octavia Spencer is fantastic in the more grounded role of the loving grandmother, one who is all too aware of the evil these witches are capable of doing. It’s certainly fair to say that lesser actors would have made this feature far less compelling than it manages to be. It would have been fun to see a finale that allowed both Hathaway and Spencer a more thrilling final battle, although as it was, it worked well enough. It was also nice to see Stanley Tucci involved in a supporting role, yet he’s not given much to do here.
Aside from a few minor changes, this version of the story still follows the same basic structure as the first film. Yet unlike Roeg’s fanciful imagining, the ending isn’t quite as dark this time around. And with Chris Rock narrating the story and the extra helping of charm and heart, you can tell that they aren’t going to go as far as they did in the final act of the previous film. Even still. Zemeckis and company don’t betray Roald Dahl‘s fanciful tale. Hathaway has one moment that may give a nightmare or two, as she is closing in on capturing the young heroes. As they run, her grotesque arms stretch and stretch, making for a surprisingly spooky image. While the rating is PG, you may want to view it first to make sure the more sensitive youngsters aren’t bothered by evil witches turning children into mice.
THE WITCHES follows the original film storyline closely. And while Anjelica Huston was simply magnificent as the head witch in the previous film, Ms. Hathaway commands the screen with a sickeningly fun monster of a villain. Zemeckis has crafted an energetic and sometimes delightful Halloween feature, one that can likely be enjoyed by the entire family. It may not be nearly as sumptuous as the superior Roeg version, but there’s enough to entertain in courtesy of Spencer and Hathaway. Ultimately, Zemeckis has crafted a fun and enjoyable holiday flick to watch while many of us are stuck at home this Halloween. It may not beat trick or treating, but it’s a worthwhile watch while celebrating this spooky time of year. THE WITCHES is currently available on HBO Max.