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Roald Dahl’s The Witches: Will Gompertz reviews the film starring Anne Hathaway ★★★☆☆

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter

Published
image copyrightWarner Bros/BBC

Robert Zemeckis's (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) screen adaptation of Roald Dahl's 1983 children's book The Witches is good in many ways, but it is sadly lacking in one important area. There is an almost complete absence of movie magic.

Yes, Anne Hathaway gives a "vunderfully" hammy performance as the Grand High Witch (think, The Joker's lovechild with Miss Jean Brodie, and then add a wildly over-the-top Eastern European baddie accent).

And yes, spells are cast and supernatural potions are drunk.

But for all the snake-seamed dresses and evil sorcery of Hathaway and her nasty pointy-toed crew, the film is more B-minus than bewitching.

image copyrightWarner Bros
image captionAnne Hathaway (Grand High Witch) said "Roald Dahl writes terrifying characters better than anybody else, and he grounds the evil in things that we see in the world"

Its fundamental fault is evident from the outset when you hear the normally excellent Chris Rock over-egging his role of narrator and consequently losing all sense of Dahl's darkly comic creation.

He is not to blame.

The problem becomes clearer in following scenes, which reveal this version is not set in Norway and England as in the original book (or America and England as in the 1990 movie). It has been relocated to Chicago and Alabama, where our hero - a recently orphaned eight-year old boy (a lively Jahzir Bruno) - goes to live with his kindly Grandma (played with a homely warmth by Octavia Spencer).

image copyrightWarner Bros
image caption(L-R) Jahzir Bruno as Hero Boy, Octavia Spencer as Grandma and Stanley Tucci as Mr. Stringer

The change of location is fine, the script that facilitates it is not.

This came as more of a surprise to me than anything in the plodding movie, because it was co-written by the multi-talented, Oscar-winning Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), who also co-wrote Peter Jackson's film versions of The Hobbit. He knows how to adapt British literary modern classics. He is immersed in the ideas of otherness. He is an extremely gifted writer.

The Witches should be right slap bang in the middle of his authorial sweet spot.

But he and his co-creators have failed to grasp the essence of Roald Dahl, which is his malevolent sense of humour welded to a master craftsman's facility with the English language. Dahl chose words like a code-breaker opens a safe; he would listen and listen and listen until precisely the right word clicked, which he would then use at precisely the right time to unlock a reaction from the reader.

image copyrightAbe Books
image captionIn his 1983 novel, The Witches, Roald Dahl created a world where real witches looked like ordinary women

If he couldn't find exactly the right word, he'd make one up - better that than using not quite the right word, which risked undermining a meticulously engineered narrative atmosphere.

Unfortunately, such attention to linguistic detail is not apparent in this film adaptation, which comes 30 years after Nicolas Roeg's production starring Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch and Rowan Atkinson as the uptight hotel manager (a role played to lesser effect in this version by Stanley Tucci).

image copyrightAlamy
image captionAnjelica Huston gave a memorable performance as Miss Ernst/Grand High Witch in the 1990 version, as did Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Stringer

The script is disappointing thus the film is inevitably disappointing, which is a shame because it is not all bad.

The basic story remains true to the book: a young boy and his grandma go for a restorative stay at a seaside hotel at the same time as an army of Witches arrive for their annual convention disguised as wealthy women attending a Children's charity event. The gnarly-fingered coven actually loathe children and hatch a grisly plan to turn them all into mice, reckoning that the little pests would subsequently be killed by their own parents who have mistaken them for noxious vermin - thereby saving the witches the trouble of doing the dreadful deed.

image copyrightWarner Bros

Sweets and chocolate are used as bait to lure unsuspecting youngsters, a temptation too hard to resist for greedy Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick). Our hero watches from under a small stage as his chubby friend falls prey to the wicked witches, all of whom have removed their wigs to reveal bald heads covered in livid red rashes.

There's only one thing for it, grandma and grandson must go into battle to try to save the "mousified" Bruno.

Octavia Spencer and Jahzir Bruno make for a watchable screen odd couple as they go about their quest, but are eclipsed by Hathaway's performance, in which her energy and physicality generate the only fleeting moments of jeopardy. She doesn't steal the show, though.

image copyrightWarner Bros
image captionGrandma with her beloved grandson after he's turned into a mouse by the Grand High Witch

That accolade goes to the CGI team, who have integrated animation and live action so seamlessly you start to think it perfectly normal to have a talking mouse in your breast pocket.

Well done them, but it's never good when the computer graphics are the best thing about a movie.

I suppose it would be reasonable to conclude by saying it is a charming film, which shouldn't be taken as praise in this instance as it is the very opposite of what the mischievous genius that was Roald Dahl intended.

Recent reviews by Will Gompertz:

  • Uncle Vanya: The must-see masterpiece ★★★★★
  • Halloween horror with Oscar potential ★★★★☆
  • Revenge art: Must-see Baroque blockbuster ★★★★★
  • Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen in an unlikely bromance ★★★★☆

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Related Topics

  • Anne Hathaway
  • Roald Dahl