He’s given us eccentric candy moguls, massive traveling peaches, a dapper fox and his friends, telekinetic moppets, big friendly giants and more — but discerning fans of Roald Dahl’s work tend to have a weakness for his witches. Published in 1982, The Witches was one of Dahl’s darker excursions into kid’s-lit, which is saying something; pitting a seven-year-old boy against a coven of kid-hating hags (disguised as high-society women), it garnered praise and controversy in almost equal numbers. Some called it horribly misogynist. Others consider it the ultimate flipped bird against adulthood, with the author not so subtly suggesting that grown-ups want to figuratively and literally destroy the child-like qualities of youth.
The book has won awards, made countless Best YA Books lists and been banned from libraries. It’s been used as an example of Dahl’s talent for not sugar-coating his Fisher-Price-My-First-Macabre tales for underage readers and for how he was a textbook “problematic author” before the term became part of our everyday lexicon. It’s been adapted into a multi-part radio drama and an opera. No less than Nicolas Roeg, the man behind The Man Who Fell to Earth and other gloriously bizarre ’70s movies, turned this fractured tale into a film in 1990. It’s now considered by many to be a cult classic. Dahl loathed it.
Every generation should get The Witches it deserves, which begs the question: What did this current generation do in order to deserve a dull, D.O.A. interpretation? Writer-director Robert Zemeckis’s new stab at Dahl’s delightfully demented novel (it begins streaming tonight on HBO Max), with help from no less than Kenya Barris (!) and Guillermo Del Toro (!!) on the screenplay, makes two highly intriguing decisions very early on. First, it relocates the story from England to Demopolis, Alabama circa 1967. Suddenly, a whole world of subtextual possibilities open up when you drop this story into the George Wallace’s South. It’s also a great excuse to play a lot of Motown and Stax on the soundtrack, and let your costume designer go crazy with the vintage couture. You quickly begin to realize which of these factors may have played a bigger part in the period setting.
The other is to make the unnamed child an African-American kid. Referred to as “Hero Boy” in the credits, he’s played by the charismatic child actor Jahzir Bruno and voiced, in his older incarnation, by Chris Rock. Taken in by his kindly grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after his parents perish in a car accident, the youngster has an encounter with a strange woman at the local grocer. Grandma is deservedly worried; she once saw her best friend get turned into a chicken. Witches prey on the poor, the overlooked, the kids no one makes a fuss about, she says. They have to hide out where it’s safe: “a rich white folks’ hotel,” because no one will think to look for them there. So Grandma, Hero Boy and his new pet mouse, Daisy, check in. How were they to know that this is the same place that the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a.k.a. the Southern-belle coven run by the Norwegian Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) herself, is scheduled to hold a huge gathering?
That’s how Hero Boy and Daisy find themselves trapped under a stage in the hotel ballroom, as Her Highness — played by Hathaway with an an ever-evolving Scandinavian accent located north of a fondue restaurant’s maître d’ yet south of The Muppets‘ Swedish Chef — preps her assembled acolytes for their master plan: unleashing a purple elixir that will turn children into mice. There are a few things that characterize witches, you see. They may look like normal, snobby human beings with an unlimited line of credit at Nordstrom’s, but actually they have claws for hands, feet with a single bird-like talon instead of toes, and CGI-enlarged jaws, all the better to chew scenery, my dear. And they hate kids. So imagine the sight of largely (but not exclusively) white horde of well-dressed ladies, pulling a small black boy by his legs into the middle of the floor, and descending on him like ravenous predators. It’s a bit of imagery that feels nightmarish whether it’s in the incendiary late Sixties or reflecting back on our recent summer of rage.
That’s the extent to which that notion goes, however. Maybe you can’t blame Zemeckis and Co. for not milking this scenario for boldfaced commentary, even though they’ve purposefully trod into this fertile ground — they want to make a work of fantastical escapism that merely hints at something potentially deeper, but doesn’t actually bother to spelunk beneath the surface. Fair enough.
Except The Witches 2020 can’t seem to find a proper manic-to-ghastly rhythm that makes the material work, either, which is a bit more of a dealbreaker. The director and his longtime cinematographer Don Burgess (Forest Gump, Cast Away, Flight) zip the camera around, often at mouse level, through scurrying passerbys and around posh rooms, yet everything feels curiously inert. Once Hero Boy is turned into a mouse along with another youngster at the hotel — Daisy, too, is a former human being, and sounds a lot like Kristin Chenoweth — we’re robbed of this actor’s expressiveness and are simply left with digital rodentia. Spencer does her best to keep the humanity intact, while Hathaway overcompensates for the lack of spark elsewhere by going bigger, broader and more googly-eyed batshit than you can imagine. No one is expecting her to step into Angelica Huston’s stilettos, given the bite and brilliance that actor brought to Roeg’s movie 30 years ago. But it’s a performance that’s larger than the movie its in. It’s probably also larger than the TV screen you’re watching it on, the multiplex screen this was originally meant for pre-Covid, and the city block where that multiplex resides.
It all ends with a postcard montage that, even by Hollywood’s happily-ever-after standards, feels cut-rate and totally alien to Dahl’s vision or voice. Zemeckis has made his share of notable movies over the past four decades, from gross-out comedies to serious dramas. Ever since the turn of the century, however — around the time he filmed an airplane crash so harrowing and realistic in Cast Away that it left you suffering from PTSD — his work has begun to feel like it’s more and more concerned with the formal experiments and tech-pushing spectacle over the storytelling. (See: The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, The Walk, Welcome to Marwen.) Thankfully, The Witches doesn’t devolve into deafening bells and whistles. It just doesn’t really come together in any aspect, sort of limping and flopping to the finish line. This isn’t a disaster. It’s just less of a tribute to the source material then a mild attempt at family-friendly fantasy composed of spare Dahl parts.