The Witches: A Disenchanting Rendition

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Zoya Haq, Staff Writer

If you have watched Anjelica Huston’s infamous rendition of Roald Dahl’s “The Witchesand are looking forward to the 2020 version recreating the same terrifying thrills and gruesome gags, let me tell you ahead of time: don’t get your hopes up.

“The Witches”, streaming on HBO Max after a forced transition from the box office to the small screen, came out on Oct. 22 with a stellar cast including Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Kristin Chenoweth. The movie, based on Dahl’s best selling children’s novel of the same name, attempts to revisit the chilling cinematic experience of Anjelica Huston’s 1990 film, but falls short in a number of ways. 

Despite its multimillion dollar budget, “The Witches” lacks a certain factor that cemented its earlier rendition in young viewer’s minds: memorability. Sure, it’s enjoyable enough – if you’re looking for a fun weekend excuse to pop some popcorn, go right ahead – but if what you’re seeking is a meaningful ode to one of Roald Dahl’s most lasting novels, then this is not your movie.  

Right off the bat, director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump”) takes some creative liberties in his retelling of the story. Rather than being set in 1980s England, the movie takes place in 1960s Alabama, with a young African-American boy as its protagonist. This transition in time and place doesn’t really detract from the essence of the story – that job instead lies in the hands of the lackluster script and disappointing world-building. 

Zemeckis’ refurbished story details the life of an unnamed protagonist, dubbed simply The Boy, struggling in the aftermath of his parents’ passing under a backdrop of the 1960s South. The Boy moves in with his warm grandmother, who tells him a story about “the witches” creatures disguised as women who despise children and want to turn them into mice. As the fragmented storyline progresses, The Boy and his grandmother move to a fancy hotel, where they encounter a coven of these witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Hathaway). Magical visuals and chilling animation abound as The Boy struggles to escape the clutches of the fearsome women.

Rather than holding true to the underlying vein of horror that courses through Dahl’s stories, Zemeckis’ retelling attempts to butter up young fans, losing its uniquely terrifying flair in the process. I finished the movie feeling like something was off. Dahl’s distinctive charm, a reminder of childhood yore, was gapingly missing; not even the dramaticized CGI or blockbuster cast could fill the hole that it left behind.

However, to completely denounce the movie would be to overlook the bewitching performances of Hathaway and Spencer. Stepping into the role of the unnamed protagonist’s loving grandmother, Spencer fully commits to the performance, tapping into her telltale eccentric flair to bring her character to new heights. Meanwhile, Hathaway definitely ups the fear factor as she plays The Grand High Witch, baring her jagged teeth with a chilling smile in one of the most memorable scenes of the movie.

Overall, “The Witches” is a fun family movie to get into the Halloween spirit. Despite the lack of balance between traditional horror elements and kid-friendly standards, “The Witches” is definitely not boring, and under the influence of a fall-scented candle and mug of hot cocoa, you’ll certainly be spellbound.