It’s been widely noted that author Roald Dahl wasn’t happy with the first cinematic adaptation of his children’s book The Witches, as director Nic Roeg dramatically changed the ending. Some parents weren’t too thrilled, either, as the movie – and Anjelica Huston’s delicious performance as the Grand High Witch – was dark and creepy enough to traumatise younger kids (though older kids loved it).
Thirty years later, director Robert Zemeckis has delivered his own, less disturbing take on the classic book, relocating Dahl’s English-set story to 1968 Alabama. It is there a young orphaned Hero Boy (Bruno) goes to live with his grandmother (Spencer), who tells him that witches live among us and they hate children and do horrible things to them (Grandma’s best friend was turned into a chicken, for example).
Realising that Hero Boy has spotted a witch himself, Grandma decides to travel to a countryside hotel where they will be safe. Unfortunately, the hotel is hosting a conference that turns out to be a gathering of witches led by the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who has a nefarious plan – she has developed a potion that will turn all children into mice, and poor Hero Boy is one of the first children she tries it out on.
Zemeckis’ adventure moves along at a fair pace, but never delivers the kind of excitement and innovative ideas we’ve come to expect from his best family movies, like the Back To The Future trilogy and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There’s nothing wrong with the movie, but also nothing that really sizzles or surprises, so it feels like something of a missed opportunity for the director.
That said, the low key effects are fun – from the children turning into mice to Hathaway’s sinister gliding across the floor – and there are some nice performances from the wonderfully warm Spencer, young Bruno (who also voices the mouse version of his character, of course) and the always reliable Tucci (as the bewildered hotel manager).
It’s Hathaway, though, who steals the show (and makes the movie) as the Grand High Witch, bringing just the right balance of camp and menace, meanness and glamour to the part. Her transformation – and that of the other witches, with their overly-widened mouths, deformed feet and claw-like hands – will still give younger children nightmares (even though the witches are thankfully not quite as scary as in the 1990 version) but older kids will no doubt think they’re great.
Is The Witches 2020 suitable for kids? Here are our parents’ notes...
As mentioned in the review, this movie is aimed at older children and adults – younger children (under 10) may find the witches frightening, especially when their true faces, clawed hands and deformed feet are revealed.
Younger children may also be upset when the main character and another child are changed into mice. They are often in mild peril when in mouse form.
Very young children may also find the Grand High Witch’s cat scary.
The flashback transformation of a young girl into a chicken may also upset younger viewers.
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