The late Roald Dahl continues to leave a long shadow over children’s fiction, decades after his death. His personal legacy is an uncomfortable mixture of immense creativity laced with accusations of misogyny and antisemitism, but his literary works – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr Fox, The BFG, and many others – inspire new readers as well as Hollywood adaptations every year.
To my mind, Dahl’s 1983 novel The Witches is one of his best. It is in effect a horror novel for young children: placing its child protagonist in terrible danger, relating some incidents and concepts that are remarkably challenging for the book’s age group, and boasting a bleak plot that sits uncomfortably among the ‘happy ever after’ conclusions of most other works of its kind. It has already been adapted to film once, in Nicolas Roeg’s excellent 1990 effort – one of the final productions produced by Jim Henson. Last year it was adapted again, this time by director Robert Zemeckis. The global COVID-19 pandemic stymied a theatrical release in the USA, although it did briefly make it to cinemas in other markets.
After his parents are killed in a car accident, a young boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) is sent to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). It is through her that he learns that witches are real, and prey on children around the world. Escaping town to an Alabama resort hotel, they are shocked to discover their arrival coincides with a secret witch convention – attended by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) herself.
With The Witches, Robert Zemeckis has effectively set himself up for failure from the outset. By re-adapting Dahl’s novel he immediately invites comparisons to the Roeg-Henson version, and is almost inevitably going to fail by comparison. Zemeckis, for all of his talents, is no Roeg, and Anne Hathaway, for all of hers, is not Angelica Huston. The 1990 Witches is such a clear case of capturing lightning in a bottle – Roeg’s bleak tone, Dahl’s peculiar style of children’s horror, Henson’s puppetry, and Huston’s outstanding performance – that any attempt to repeat that success is going to be a one in a million shot.
So put the first Witches aside. A negative comparison was inevitable and, in the end, irrelevant: this is a different Witches for an entirely different generation, and deserves to be considered on its own merits.
Robert Zemeckis has been on an odd ride in recent years. After a string of hugely successful populist films, including Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact, and Cast Away, he seemed weirdly sidelined by a curious obsession with CGI animation and motion capture. After emerging from the likes of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol – none of which seemed to entirely work – Zemeckis’ return to live action has seemingly failed to capture the energy and the stylish photography that typified his early work. Films like The Walk, Flight, and Allied are by no means bad, but neither do they feel like the same filmmaker who made Back to the Future. It is a genuine pleasure to see The Witches capture much of the vibe and aesthetic of Zemeckis’ earlier films. Even his experience making CGI animated films pays off in scenes involving seeing the world from a mouse’s perspective; it boasts a vivid dimensionality and sense of scale.
While the novel’s story is effectively replicated – in some places more accurately than Roeg’s film – it is saddled with both unnecessary narration and overly descriptive dialogue (‘They’re all witches!’ exclaims the protagonist, as the viewer can see for themselves a roomful of women revealing themselves as such.) There is also added back story that, while reasonably well added, feel surplus to the film’s requirements. It becomes a more personal conflict, but in doing so feels like a much smaller story.
Performances are strong, notably Octavia Spencer and Anne Hathaway – the latter undertaking some excellent work in rendering a truly grotesque Grand High Witch. She is supported in that endeavour by some fabulous design work; the witches of Zemeckis’ film are a gaudier form than in Roeg’s, but remain tremendously effective. At its best this really does work as children’s horror, and is easily capable of giving younger viewers nightmares.
At its worst, however, The Witches feels awfully saccharine and twee. It feels like a film slipping between stools, a sense no better emphasised than the joint screenplay credits for Zemeckis and Guillermo Del Toro (as well as Kenya Barris). It shows an ability to be frightening, but keeps under-cutting itself. It clearly wants to be a mainstream family film, but cannot help but go a bit too dark for that purpose. It is, broadly speaking, an enjoyable film. There are better films out there.