The Witches (3 stars)

The Witches

Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer battle it out in Robert Zemeckis's crack at the Roald Dahl classic

Family film fixture Robert Zemeckis turns his hand to a spot of light horror in a take on Roald Dahl's classic 1983 children's story that, in its demented (ultimately grotesque) glamourpusses, evokes his own Death Becomes Her. It's a serviceable and sumptuous, reasonably scary adaptation that adds some promising updates and features a fine cast, though struggles to emerge from the shadow of both the source material and Nicolas Roeg's 1990 version.

Transposed to the Alabama of 1968 (from 1980s England and Norway), it sees a young African-American boy (Jahzir Bruno) orphaned in a car wreck at the outset and sent to live with his firm-but-fair grandma (Octavia Spencer), who gently coaxes him out of the shell of his grief. When he encounters Josette Simon's witch, his grandmother suggests fleeing – she has personal experience of their kind. Unfortunately, when they rock up at a swanky resort run by Stanley Tucci's Mr Stringer, the hotel just so happens to be playing host to an entire coven of the blighters – masquerading as the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children – who are plotting to turn the nation's kids into mice, and make something of a start.

Spencer is a reassuringly no-nonsense presence as a grandparent whose own lotions and potions come in damn handy, and there's enjoyably extravagant voice work from Chris Rock, as the film's narrator. And, appearing in a range of wildly OTT Old Hollywood-esque costumes – the one belted with a snake is particularly superb – Anne Hathaway plays the Grand High Witch with sinister aplomb. Seemingly fuelled by a determination not to be totally outdone by Angelica Huston's unforgettable turn in the original, Hathaway gives it plenty of welly; with a slashed smile reminiscent of the Joker, she is, at least occasionally, the stuff of childhood nightmares, even if her fellow witches don't get much of a look-in.

Roeg's spin was significantly enhanced by Christine Beveridge's BAFTA-nominated make-up effects and puppetry by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, that's been replaced by less awe-inspiring and impactful CGI here; if the mouse creations aren't flawless, they are at least pretty adorable, and the film has fun with the transformations.

By altering the race of the protagonist and his grandmother, the huge challenges the Black community faced in that particular era could have been explored – all that's mentioned is that witches like to prey on the poor and disadvantaged – and this lack of engagement leaves what could have been a powerful new dimension to the story feeling almost tokenistic. The film does restore the book's ending – Dahl famously hated Roeg's change to that – and, if you're looking to ease your kids into horror this Halloween, then it's just about wicked enough.

Available to watch on Premium VOD from Mon 26 Oct.

The Witches

  • 3 stars
  • 2020
  • US
  • 1h 46min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
  • Cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Codie-Lei Eastick
  • UK release: 26 October 2020

A new adaptation of Roald Dahl's scary and funny book. The story has been transplanted to America in this film directed by Robert Zemeckis.

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