Roald Dahl’s The Witches is sort of a kid friendly version of a horror movie with monsters and mutations. Dahl also wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which is basically a kid friendly horror story where the characters get bumped off one by one. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) Witches has great visuals that may copy the same visuals of the 1990 Angelica Huston starring version of the Witches, but that’s probably just due to both movies being faithful to the original source. This is a weird, wild movie that has a lot of big performances and visual effects flourishes, ultimately resulting in a lot of loud nonsense but it is mostly entertaining loud nonsense.
A boy (Jahzir Bruno) is living with his grandma (Octavia Spencer) when one day he meets a strange woman offering him candy. Grandma tells him this was a witch and as a young child Grandma had a freaky encounter with one. Witches hate children and want to turn them into animals, and the worst witch is the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). To escape the witches, the boy and his grandma end up at a fancy hotel but unluckily this same hotel is where a convention of witches is being held. Even worse, when the boy is caught snooping on their meeting he gets turned into a mouse. Now the boy with two other children who were also turned into mice, Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) and Daisy (Kristen Chenoweth), and the boy’s grandma have to stop the Grand High Witch from turning all the children of the world into mice. However, stopping creatures that can fly, shoot lightning, have giant fangs and extendable arms, may be exceptionally difficult for three mice and an old lady.
There is a surprising amount of backstory stuffed into the film, with Spencer delivering a whole bunch of it. Her introduction where the grandma takes care of her grandson after his parents die in a car crash is heartfelt and one of the few times when the movie gratefully slows way down. Spencer mostly talks about the history of witches and she tells one harrowing story about her childhood friend who ran afoul of a witch. With some cool, creepy looking flashbacks and Spencer’s haunting/amusing narration, the scene is pretty great. Chris Rock narrates throughout the film and his big expository introduction at the start of the movie is impactful as he yells that “Witches are real!”. When he pops up again at the end, it is a nice reveal who has been speaking the whole time.
The other big actress in the movie is Hathaway as the Grand High Witch and her performance is exceptionally loud. She is complimented by crazy effects that distort her face and body as the Grand High Witch turns into an inhuman monster. Hathaway’s accent goes from purring softly to hollering madly with a deeply rumbling voice which is really swinging for the fences. She’s good at sneering menacingly and the fact that the CGI makes her sneer into monster jaws is unnerving. It’s very campy but it works with the film tonally. Her loud yelling becomes funny when the Grand High Witch finally gets her comeuppance.
Bruno as the lead kid has a sympathetic introduction with the loss of his parents and learning to get close to his grandma but he becomes less interesting as the movie goes on. Even when he’s turned into a mouse it doesn’t seem like a big deal and how he ends up at the end is oddly unsatisfying. His other two mouse companions are more interesting, Eastick is basically just playing a gluttonous kid cliché turned into a mouse but he has a few laughs, and Chenoweth voicing Daisy does high pitched indignation really well. Stanley Tucci pops up as the manager of the hotel and even though it’s kind of a nothing part, Tucci is enough of a pro to make it worthwhile. He gets a few funny standoffs with the Grand High Witch and when the mutated mice start flying around near the end, he squeals appropriately.
Zemeckis always makes visually impressive films. While the CGI may sometimes dip into being cartoony, it works with the film’s vibe. The best stuff is the point of view of the mice scurrying through the hotel as it seamlessly blends live action and CGI. Zemeckis spent the last few years working almost exclusively in CGI films so this is a nice balance of live action and CGI animation. The transformation of the witches is effectively repulsive and when someone takes a potion that turns them into a mouse, it shoots out a cloud of purple that sends them flying into the air. The music by Alan Silvestri is appropriately zany and dark in spots.
Desperately seeking a franchise, this movie ends with some unnecessary blatant sequel bait that will probably never be followed up on. Still, Roald Dahl’s The Witches looks great although the characters are a bit simplistic but the actors elevate it. There is a zippy momentum to the film and the baddie witches seem genuinely unstoppable. When things start getting weird, it is weirdly compelling.
Roald Dahl's The Witches
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci