The Witches: Sassy, satisfying reimagining of Roald Dahl’s beloved tale

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The Witches (M, 106mins) Directed by Robert Zemeckis ****

Much like a certain other cinematic adaptation of a hotel-set novel, while audiences loved the 1990 version of this tale, the author loathed it.

Arguably Roald Dahl’s reaction to Nicolas Roeg’s take on his 1983 book The Witches was even more vitriolic than Stephen King’s was towards Stanley Kubrick’s vision of The Shining. Appalled at the film’s “vulgarity”, “bad taste” and “actual terror”, Dahl also apparently hated the revised, upbeat ending and vowed to never allow Hollywood to touch his works again while he was alive, also leaving very specific instructions in his will.

Despite that, and thanks to a terrific performance by Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch and some masterful work by the magicians at the Jim Henson Company, the film has become something of a cult classic – almost a filmic rite-of-passage for kids who don’t mind being scared.

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So perhaps it’s no surprise that Robert Zemeckis’ CGI-heavy reimagining has been met with some suspicion and derision by fans of Roeg’s version.

It’s true, it does lack some of the shaggy charm of the now 30-year-old flick, a little of its visceral gut-punch and nightmarish qualities, and, that, try-as-she-might, Anne Hathaway’s grand high witch just seems a little cartoonish in comparison to Huston.

Those familiar with Zemeckis’ (The Polar Express, Back to the Future) work will also see the director’s fingerprints all over it, from the Forrest Gump-esque, classic hits-laden soundtrack to the Death Becomes Her-like macabre production design. But, I’m here to tell you, this is not the clunky disaster many will have you believe it is. Instead, it’s a vibrant, invigorating and slick production that might just be the saviour of the impending summer school holidays.

Octavia Spencer’s performance is the heart and soul of this fabulous film.


Octavia Spencer’s performance is the heart and soul of this fabulous film.

For those unfamiliar with the story – here actually quite cleverly and seamlessly relocated from the UK to late 1960s Alabama – it revolves around a nameless eight-year-old boy (Jahzir Bruno) who is forced to live with his Grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after his parents die in a car accident.

A local healer, Grandma warns her young charge that there are witches everywhere, something he dismisses, until a chilling encounter in the local supplies store. Fearing for their safety, Grandma decides they should relocate to the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel, since “witches only prey on the poor and overlooked” and the swankiest resort in all of Alabama is “full of rich, white folk”.

However, little does Grandma know that the hotel is also playing host to a meeting of the International Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a group whose membership seem awfully like the kind of people they were seeking to avoid.

Combining with Black-ish writer Kenya Barris and the Mexican maestro of malevolent forces Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak), Zemeckis has come up with a conceit that actually cleaves quite tightly to the book, while delivering plenty of action and laughs for the whole family. Even better, unlike say Polar Express or A Christmas Carol, the sumptuous-looking visuals (clever point-of-view shots and crazy camera angles abound) are married to a superior, satisfying and sassy story. The eponymous demonic hexers in particular are beautifully rendered, with Hathaway’s top witch a kind of part-Joker, part-Venom (the actor herself says she was inspired by Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s Judge Doom).

Anne Hathaway plays The Witches’ head honcho – The Grand High Witch.


Anne Hathaway plays The Witches’ head honcho – The Grand High Witch.

Of course, casting is key to this film’s success. Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada) is a delight as a hapless hotel manager, Chris Rock delivers a deliciously detail-filled voiceover and Bruno (TV’s Atlanta) gives good hero boy.

However, it’s Spencer who is the real star of the show and – if there’s any justice – should be line for best supporting actress nominations (although she really is the female lead) in the upcoming, belated awards season. Her Grandma is a tour de force, a woman who would “give you a spanking if you deserved it and a big, ol’ hug if you needed it”.

Whether it’s cutting a rug to I’ll Be There to lift a despondent young man’s spirits, delivering safety advice, or recounting when her best friend was chicken-i-fied, Spencer’s performance is the heart and soul of this fabulous film.

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