Slow to ignite, The Witches is an uneven adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel of the same name.
It’s 1967. Eight year-old Hero Boy (newcomer Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents in a car accident and goes to live with his Grandma (Octavia Spencer) in rural Alabama. Clearly hit hard by their passing, he says little and shuns the food his grandma has prepared. Slowly but surely, she wins him over. Grandma buys Hero Boy a white mouse. He names it Daisy and carries with him wherever he goes. Then an experience in a grocery store spooks him and changes his life. He comes face to face with a bona fide witch. When he later tells Grandma about it, she has an eye-opening tale of her own from when she was a child.
You see, witches can’t stand children. Next thing you know, the Hero Boy and Grandma packed their bags and gone to a luxurious hotel. There they encounter a coven of witches, led by the evil Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). While they look human, they’re anything but. In their true form, they are hideous – bald, with clawed hands and a protruding middle toe on each foot. The witches are armed with a purple potion that can turn children into mice. Hero Boy and his newfound friend don’t stand a chance. But the Grand High Witch didn’t count on the collective will of the mice, not to mention the resourceful Grandma.
It takes this dark fantasy quite some time to get going. The opening is a bit flat, with a number of unexpected pauses that made me tune out. But when Hero Boy and Grandma get to the hotel, the action, fortunately, kicks up a gear. Hijinks abound, including some madcap hide-and-seek. Roald Dahl’s dark style is well translated when the Grand High Witch shows her true colours.
Octavia Spencer does much of the grunt work to keep the story moving, while Hero Boy is best as a mouse (as voiced by Chris Rock). Anne Hathaway masters the art of exaggeration as the Grand High Witch. I also appreciated Stanley Tucci as the fawning hotel manager, Mr Stringer.
So, while not a total wipe out, I expected a better and punchier script from Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro; and stronger direction from the former.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.