Children love terrifying stories. This is an obvious truth to any parent who’s ever shared a ghost story with their child, or any former kid who remembers the telling. Yet in the age of studio tentpoles, dark amusements for kids have largely disappeared—banished to the ether alongside anything else deemed too edgy. As the years passed, children’s movies got a little safer, a little more predictable, and a little less mischievous.
Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches wishes to wave a magic wand that walks this all back. Premiering today on HBO Max, the newest film from the director of Back to the Future adapts Roald Dahl’s darkest children’s story—one where, like in the fairy tales of yore, witches walk among us and really do savor in the killing of children. They can appear as sweet and well-groomed as Anne Hathaway, a former Disney princess, but inside they hide an ugliness that manifests with the wickedest of ideas and grimaces. While the book has been famously adapted before in an Angelica Huston-led 1990 film, it’s never been given this much budget or sense of fidelity to Dahl.
Whether it is every adult’s cup of tea is almost beside the point when I imagine kids of a certain temperament are going to adore its enchantments.
The setup for the uninitiated is that a young boy named Charlie (Jahzir Bruno) is struck by tragedy when he goes to live with his dear grandmother (Octavia Spencer). His parents have died in a car crash, and as a result he can barely muster the ability to talk, not that he needs to; Spencer’s Grandma Agatha talks plenty for the both of them. She also sings, dances, and tells stories… but none so captivating as her memories of growing up in rural Alabama where she had a run in with a witch. A witch named Lilith (Hathaway).
Soon Charlie bumps into a witch of his own, causing his grandmother to transport the two of them to the swankiest hotel on the Gulf Coast, with the hope of hiding away from any child-abducting crones while living in style. But as luck would have it, the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is also staying at the hotel. And within that hotel’s ballroom, the league of women let down their literal hair (because all witches wear wigs, of course) and reveal they’re actually demonic hellions! And none is more demonic than Hathaway’s ageless Grand High Witch, who has a plan to turn every child in the world into a mouse… beginning with Charlie!
Certainly a film intended for older kids, or younger ones whose parents think they can handle a small scare, The Witches has more of an edge to it than most “family friendly” Halloween offerings. That of course was always the secret of the book’s magic, as well as director Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation. In fact, the earlier film is something of a cult classic thanks to the absolutely ferocious makeup and special effects from the Jim Henson Company. Starring Huston at her most fiendish, and with the final special effects overseen by Henson before his death, the movie is a cultural touchstone (and nightmare) for older millennials.
The elements that have made that original film linger—Huston’s absolute ruthlessness and delightful puppet effects that see children become mice—are found wanting in Zemeckis’ remake. Unsurprisingly relying on CGI for the mouse effects and transformations, The Witches (2020) disappointingly falls back on digital effects for the evil countenances of Hathaway and the other witches: they’re all lazily slapped with Heath Ledger’s Glasgow smile from The Dark Knight, plus a row of fangs.
For that reason, parents of a certain age will fold their arms in resentment at the remake. But from the perspective of a child who didn’t grow up with nightmares of Huston’s bestial beak, Zemeckis’ movie offers its own thrills, beginning first and foremost with a tighter narrative.
Unlike the original film, this one sharply lays out the emotional journey of its central child. Played by both a solid Bruno and Chris Rock, who does voiceover narration as an older Charlie recounting his childhood exploits, the stakes of the lad’s adventure are made clear when the film lays out the breadth of his trauma. It also greatly develops his relationship with Grandma as being more than just the stuff of ghost stories. As irresistible as ever, Spencer injects a warmth that prevents the film from ever feeling depressing or dark, and conquers her grandson’s melancholy as readily as she takes over most of the film one Motown song at a time.
Similarly, the film may transport Dahl’s story from Europe to the American South, but in addition to providing the film with a fresh perspective of a child used to being ignored by authority figures—even before he was a mouse—the movie is also closer to Dahl’s original text, thanks to a screenplay that includes Zemeckis and Guillermo del Toro among its writers. By actually exploring the tragedy that brings a boy to live with his grandmother and carrying through to keeping Dahl’s darker and more satisfying ending, the new movie brings dimensionality to this yarn.
Of course the element that will be contrasted most is Hathaway as the new Grand Witch. With a thick Norwegian accent that verges on caricature, and a smile so tight she resembles a shark, even before CGI extends her grin, Hathaway’s performance is big. Whereas Huston favored relative restraint until the “mask” came off (and the prosthetic went on), Hathaway plays her diva witch as closer to how one imagines Madeline Kahn’s Lili Von Shtupp might’ve auditioned for the role of Maleficent.
It’s broad and ultimately wearying. But it’s also audacious and after nearly two hours, it can bring you to submission.
I imagine that may be the case for many parents, whether they’re familiar with other versions of the story or not. Darker and more dangerous than a typical Disney+ offering, The Witches will catch some off guard; for others an acceptance will have to be made that this isn’t Huston’s vehicle. But those with kids will likely accept it, grudgingly or not, because this has the markings of a childhood seasonal favorite.
The Witches is on HBO Max now.