Robert Zemeckis Brings Back Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ With Big Effects but Less Magic

Children’s stories are designed to be told over and over. The best ones are written in a way where the adults get a sly kind of enjoyment while the kids have pure fun. So it makes perfect sense that Robert Zemeckis would want to do a new version of Roald Dahl’s “The Witches.” Originally slated for a theatrical release, Warner Bros. decided to sell it to HBO Max, where it now makes its streaming debut. But to do Dahl justice you need to capture that fine balance between acidic humor and Aesop wisdom, which is what the beloved 1990 adaptation did so well. Zemeckis’s take makes the worthy effort of diversifying the story, but would rather continue his ongoing love affair with what computers can do.

A narrator (Chris Rock) recalls his boyhood in 1968. We cut to the past where we meet “The Boy” (Jahzir Bruno), who is left orphaned when his parents are killed in a car crash. He is taken in by his all-wise grandmother (Octavia Spencer) to Demopolis, a rural town in Alabama. When the Boy is approached by a strange woman who conjures a snake on her arm, the Boy tells his Grandmother, who alerts him to the presence of witches. To get away the grandmother books them a room at a lavish hotel near the coast through a cousin. Alas, arriving at the same hotel is the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, led by an arrogantly refined benefactor (Anne Hathaway). While snooping around, the Boy makes the startling discovery that the refined woman is actually the Grand High Witch, leading her fellow coven in a plot to use a magic potion to transform the world’s children into mice. 

Since its publication in 1983 Roald Dahl’s novel has been a children’s favorite, along with his other titles. But most viewers of Zemeckis’s film will no doubt first draw comparisons with Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 cult classic starring Anjelica Huston, in one of her most famous roles as the Grand High Witch. Roeg was an enfant terrible of 1980s cinema, yet by teaming up with master animator Jim Henson he made a movie wickedly dark and in the full spirit of Dahl. It had edgy satire while retaining a childlike energy. Zemeckis is too established a director to want to simply imitate Roeg, and the best element in this new version is how it attempts a fresh diversity by dumping England and staging the action with Black American characters in the lead. It could have been a fantastic example of why these stories are timeless and culturally transcendental. 

But instead of remaining at least faithful to the Dahl tone ala Tim Burton with his own “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” he goes the easy route of turning the movie into a standard CGI romp. Gone are the more classic storytelling aspects. Instead of the fairytale opening with grandmother narrating to the boy how to be on the lookout for witches, thereby establishing the wondrous world of the plot, the witch angle comes out of nowhere with the oddly-performed snake scene. The Chris Rock narration itself is unnecessary, unless it was written for the sole purpose of hiring Chris Rock and getting the budget approved. It makes the classic mistake of needless narrations in explaining every twist before it happens. Actually, there’s no sense of mystery or surprise during the entire movie because Zemeckis reveals everything instantly. The moment Anne Hathaway enters the hotel her visage contorts into a CGI witch face that looks lifted from “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare,” with stretched out, satanic lips and jagged teeth. This ruins the sense of gleeful revelation so great in the Roeg film, where Huston doesn’t expose her true nature until she peels off her face while meeting with the coven. It’s also impossible to top Henson’s memorable prosthetics and makeup, which turned Huston into a total, ragged crone of a witch. Hathaway is simply bald, with a tail and three-fingered hands that look borrowed from a bad alien movie. The rest of the witches, who have no personality or humor, don’t do much except be bald and cheer on Hathaway. The script lacks the hilarious satire of the original, where the witches are having their own, black magic version of a corporate conference.

Those familiar with the story know that the boy gets turned into a mouse, so the rest of the plot turns into his quest to stop the witches by alerting grandma, running around the hotel with Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), a rich kid with a big appetite who was the Grand High Witch’s first victim. Apparently kids are expected to be content with nothing but digital action these days, so Zemeckis goes for the CGI mice-on the-run genre, where they evade feet, the kitchen staff and the Grand High Witch’s black cat. The special effects are actually quite standard, with nothing much to swoon about. Cute moments from the puppetry in the original, like our hero nearly sliding off a ladle into a pan of soup, are no different here than recent escapist fare like “Peter Rabbit.” Since his days doing much better motion capture movies like “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express,” Zemeckis has seemed to rely solely on computers for everything. In “The Witches” even Grand High Witch’s potion bottles are all obviously digital. It would have all been more fun if there was more wit, more actual joy for younger viewers and humor for the adults. Even the ending gets watered down to subpar Marvel movie level, dismissing the truly great, bloody ending of the original material. Although like Roeg, Zemeckis also never dares touch the book’s bittersweet closing chapter. A co-writer on the screenplay is Guillermo del Toro, but one wonders how much of his draft is present here.

The best part of “The Witches” is Olivia Spencer, who does seem to be having fun playing grandma, always delivering her lines with that homely depth she could bring to any role. Anne Hathaway is hit or miss as the Grand High Witch. For whatever reason Zemeckis decides to break the film’s transition to a southern American setting with her, giving the witch some kind of bizarre neo-German accent. Good supporting characters like hotel host Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci) are underused, never becoming part of the action. 

“The Witches” is a great story, without a doubt, and could no doubt make for multiple good movies. This one has the potions and the mice, but lacks the real magic of the tale. Thankfully the Roeg movie is easily available for streaming as well, and that’s the one you should sit down with the kids to watch this Halloween season.

Roald Dahl’s The Witches” begins streaming Oct. 22 on HBO Max.