It’s a wonder more Roald Dahl books haven’t seen the light of cinematic day. We’re barely into double figures (three of those are remakes), and yet his huge body of work is a prime visual feast for family audiences looking for something other than the relentless onslaught of superhero fare.
Enter The Witches. Not so much a remake of the 1990 film as a new take on the original story, we enter a world where witches exist and really, really hate children. It’s a story with more than its fair share of nastiness and big gloopy spoonfuls of horror, essential ingredients in any adaptation of Dahl’s work.
That sharp edge was noticeably missing from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when it received the Tim Burton treatment. As ideal as Burton’s visuals are (so well aligned with illustrator Quentin Blake’s sharp-angled style) he isn’t – say it quietly – a particularly great storyteller.
Robert Zemeckis, however, absolutely is. And with his penchant for cutting-edge special effects, not to mention supernatural tales, he’s arguably the most qualified of all Hollywood’s top tier directors to take the task on.
It’s 1960s Alabama, and a young boy (Jahzir Bruno) is the sole survivor of a car crash that has killed his parents. Borderline-mute, and with no place else to go, the boy finds himself living with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer), who does her best to coax the lad into dancing, talking, or even just smiling.
Eventually he begins to find his voice, which is essential given that he’s about to have his first run-in with a real, bona fide witch. Fortunately, Grandma knows a thing or two about witches…
The plot remains utterly faithful to the novel – perhaps even more so than Nicholas Roeg’s 1990 take – with only the relocation to the USA being a major change. We still end up in a coastal hotel where Grandma convalesces, and the local cabal of witches still arrives to have its annual get-together.
When the Grand High Witch enters the scene (Anne Hathaway stepping into the Anjelica Huston’s shoes has an absolute blast as she munches on the scenery) one might wonder if a modern Hollywood family flick would have the nerve to follow through with the big witch reveal, a scene that haunted the dreams of so many 90s kids.
Perhaps it’s the CG replacing Jim Henson’s physical effects, or maybe it’s just age. Either way, despite Zemeckis reveling in the moment, the director can’t quite grasp the horror that haunted children past. Still, he clearly enjoys himself coming up with new and improved ways to scare the bejesus out of children, especially those attempting to flee down air vents.
Yes, Hathaway’s accent spends more time moving around Europe than Michael Palin, and the child actors, at least in human form, occasionally falter (Stanley Tucci also does his best to emulate Rowan Atkinson), but these are minor complaints, and easily forgiven thanks to the gusto and heart that the cast, not to mention Zemeckis and his crew, have for the story (Zemeckis co-penned the script, alongside Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, and Guillermo Del Toro, to create a writing super-group). Del Toro’s keen sense of magical wonder and Barris’s acerbic wit are the perfect recipe.
As with the novel, the end sets up room for more stories in the realm, but what’s even more exciting is the thought that, should this do well, Roald Dahl’s library of classics could tempt Warner Bros. into expanding into what would inevitably become an expanded universe. With the Wizarding World faltering after the last Fantastic Beasts debacle, it would be a welcome change, particularly if the future Dahl movies are as fun as this one.