In a media environment that is friendlier than ever to remakes, re-imaginings, and reboots, HBO Max has offered a new version of Roald Dahl’s 1983 children’s book The Witches for our consideration.
Though Dahl’s book is set in the 1980s U.K., this version of the Witches takes place in 1960s Alabama. The unnamed child protagonist (Jahzir Bruno) goes to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after his parents die in a car accident. But, in his grandmother’s town, he is in danger: there are child-hunting witches who can turn children into mice. Luckily, the Boy’s grandmother knows a little something about these witches and their powers. She understands his plight and attempts to whisk him to safety.
Grandmother’s best guess as to where to find safety, as a Black family in the 1960s south, is to go wherever the white people are. Grandmother and the Boy head to a rich, fancy hotel for refuge. But – gasp! – the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) is holding her conference at this very hotel. Although the witches successfully turn him into a mouse almost immediately, he and his other mouse/child friends team up with Grandmother to thwart the witches’ plan and live as a bi-species family of witch hunters, happily ever after.
The Witches is directed by the iconic Robert Zemeckis (of Back to the Future and Forrest Gump fame), and the directorial vision is perhaps the best part. The visual effects are decently realistic-looking for a movie that revolves largely around CGI mice and nonhuman witch ladies with clawed hands and feet. Plus the music is fun, shots are beautifully structured, and there are all kinds of visually intriguing moments, such as when falling rain is used to illustrate imagination or when the large group of witches moves as a synchronized organism.
If only the movie’s message was as satisfying as its direction. Setting this story in the segregated, racist 1960s south and making the main characters Black were obviously intentional choices. However, The Witches fell short of sending any clear messages about race. The closest it got was naming that safety exists where white people are, and showing that most of the staff at the white people hotel are Black. Impactful connections could have been made regarding the white witches versus the Black family, but they weren’t.
And for a movie that’s ostensibly attempting to be socially conscious – and a children’s movie trying to do so, no less – this movie has some pretty tone-deaf elements. One of the most glaring is the freakish amount of fat shaming. The character of Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) essentially has one personality trait: he is a fat child who loves food. As is typical within the “fat kid” trope, his hunger is always getting the group into trouble. It’s painful to watch, as is the casual suicide joke made by hotel staff at one point.
Certainly, in typical Roald Dahl – and HBO – fashion, The Witches does not shy away from potentially disturbing content. Some of the visuals, especially of the witches, are quite grotesque. And, on a story level, the children-turned-mice never get to return to their human lives. This movie may almost be too emotionally and visually intense for kids… which is weird, because it’s also too over-done for adults. Dialogue explicitly states themes, the plot is extremely simple, and the acting is so over-the-top that it’s difficult to tell whether the actors (particularly Anne Hathaway) are supposed to be like this or not. Octavia Spencer is a notable exception: she gives an endearing performance, even as her scene partners are quite often CGI’d.
The Witches will likely please fans of the big names involved and lovers of anything that scares. But for those of us just looking for a non-cringey, satisfying story with great acting, we should probably keep looking.
The Bottom Line
The Witches is a treat for the eyes, but it misses the mark on both the child and adult levels. It gets an E for Effort… and an A for Octavia Spencer’s dancing.