There is no naughty child who couldn’t be tamed by the opening chapters of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Dahl offers a scenario so chilling that even the most wandering mind was reached; witches are real, they are amongst us, and they prey on children. And the scene-setter, in which a little boy is magically trapped in a picture, growing old before his parents’ desperate eyes, is probably more disturbing than a thousand horror films.
Playing like Suspiria for pre-schoolers, Robert Zemekis’s fresh adaptation, following on from Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 version, unwisely dumps such little scenes as extraneous baggage. The story is moved from eighties Britain to 1968 Alabama, but without taking much period detail other than Grandma (Octavia Spencer) and her predilection for pop music. A young boy is orphaned and moves in with her, and befriends a pet mouse, a friendship which takes on another dimension when they holiday in an elaborate hotel, only to find that it’s being used for a meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. The meeting, however, is merely a cover for the meeting of a grand coven of witches, led by the Grand High Witch herself, played by Anne Hathaway. The hotel manager, Mr Springer (Stanley Tucci) is unaware of their nefarious activities, leaving Grandma and her team with the task of stopping the witches from promotion their own special brand of cruelty to children.
Zemekis was a CGI pioneer via Death Becomes Her, The Frighteners and Contact, and he knows how to create depth and scale with effects. So this 2020 version, co-written by Guillermo del Toro, has plenty to offer, and a few moments are striking, particularly when the Grand High Witch recognises Grandma at the dining table with a withering look. Other scenes, such as the mice escaping via knitting on a hotel balcony, are well conceived, and kids will probably dig the off-kilter feel of the mayhem as the witches get their come-uppance. Other elements jar; Chris Rock’s narration for one, too breathless and unconsidered to match the elegant narrative twists. And while Dahl’s story was specifically rooted in political satire, namely Margaret Thatcher’s annual conferences in large Brighton seafront hotels, The Witches 2020 strips away the references and replaces them with nothing in particular, making the story seem, well, just odd.
I’d be curious to know what today’s kids make of Grandma’s inability to restore the kids to human form after they get transformed into mice; in Dahl’s dark work of orphans and magic, it makes sense, but the failure to return things to a status quo feels unsatisfying here. Hathaway does well, as does Spencer, but the comedy shrinks as the scale of the action increases, and this slick version somehow lacks the magic of Dahl’s prose, or Quentin Blake’s beloved illustrations.