Review: ‘Roald Dahl’s The Witches,’ starring Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci

October 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eugenia Caruso, Penny Lisle, Josette Simon, Anne Hathaway, Orla O’Rourke and Ana-Maria Maskell in “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” (Photo by Daniel Smith/HBO Max)

“Roald Dahl’s The Witches”

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Demopolis, Alabama, in 1978, the family-friendly horror/fantasy film “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A widowed grandmother and her orphaned grandson encounter evil witches who want to turn children into mice. 

Culture Audience: “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” will appeal primarily to people looking for lightweight, fantasy entertainment about good versus evil that has the same formula as many other family-oriented films about wicked witches who don’t like children.

Jahzir Bruno, Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci in “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” (Photo by Daniel Smith/HBO Max)

“Roald Dahl’s Witches” should’ve been named “Anne Hathaway Hamming It Up as a Witch,” because that’s really the main attraction for this duller-than-it-should-be movie. Hathaway’s Grand High Witch character—who is the leader of a coven that’s flocked to Demopolis, Alabama, in 1978—is the only one in the coven who has a distinct personality. The rest of the witches are essentially backdrops to Hathaway’s over-the-top performance in a very formulaic and unimaginative movie. Considering all of the Oscar winners who were involved in making this movie, “Roald Dahl’s Witches” isn’t horrible, but it’s a big disappointment from people who can do and have done much better work.

Directed and co-written by Oscar-winning “Forrest Gump” director Robert Zemeckis, “Roald Dahl’s Witches” (adapted from Dahl’s 1983 novel “The Witches”) is the second movie version of the book. The first movie version was 1990’s “The Witches,” directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Anjelica Huston. The 2020 movie version changed the story’s location from Europe to the United States, and made the witch-hunting grandmother and grandson African American.

It’s a change that is significant only in that the movie briefly makes some subtle references to racism, and the grandmother listens to a lot of 1960s and 1970s R&B music. Other than that, the premise of the movie remains the same: The grandmother (played by Octavia Spencer) and her orphaned grandson (played by Jahzir Bruno), who do not have names in the movie, go on a mission to hunt down and stop a coven of witches who plan to turn children into mice, in the hopes that the mice will be killed as rodent pests.

Hathaway and Spencer are both Oscar winners. Zemeckis co-wrote the screenplay to this movie with “The Shape of Water” Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris. The movie’s cast also includes Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci. On paper, it sounds like a winning combination to make a spectacular, award-worthy classic movie. The reality is that “Roald Dahl’s Witches” is frustratingly average and at times a boringly repetitive film.

We’ve seen many movies already with an over-the-top evil witch, animated animals that interact with live-action humans (in this movie’s case, the animated animals are mice and one obligatory witch’s black cat), and one big race against time to stop the chief villain from doing what the villain plans to do. Nothing in this movie is award-worthy.

That’s not to say “Roald Dahl’s Witches” doesn’t have entertaining moments. But they are arrive in between long stretches where not much happens except the grandmother and her hero son talk about and plan what they need to do to stop the witches. The boy, whose parents died in a car accident, has been living with his grandmother since becoming an orphan. (Chris Rock does voiceover narration as the hero boy as an adult.) His grandmother is slowly able to lift him out his depression over his parents’ death, and she buys him a pet female mouse that he names Daisy.

And it’s around this time that the hero boy encounters a witch with a snake coming out of her sleeve while he and his grandmother are in a hardware store. The witch’s name is Zelda (played by Josette Simon), and it turns out that she used to be the grandmother’s best friend when they were children. Zelda was turned into a witch by the Grand High Witch and has been in the coven ever since. The grandmother figures out that her grandson encountered Zelda, based on her grandson’s frightened description of the witch he saw in the hardware store.

The witches in this story have several distinctive features, which the grandmother tells her grandson about when she teaches him how to spot a witch: The witches, who are demons disguised as humans, always wear long gloves because they have claws, not hands. The witches always wear wigs, because they are actually bald. The witches have unusually long corners of their mouths, which they cover with heavy makeup. The witches have feet without toes and have oversized nostrils that become more pronounced when they can catch the scent of children.

The witches hate kids and want to get rid of all the children in the world. The witches offer candy (such as taffy) to children entice them. And witches are repulsed by clean children because these children smell like defecation to the witches. The cleaner the children are, the more they stink to the witches.

After the grandson’s scary encounter with Zelda, the grandmother and grandson check into a swanky hotel called the Grand Imperial Island Hotel, which they are able to do because of a favor from a hotel employee whom the grandmother knows. The grandmother says that she figures that her grandson will be safe to hide there because “ain’t nothin’ but rich white folks” at the hotel and “witches prey on the poor, the overlooked, the kids they think nobody’s going to make a fuss about if they go missing.”

The movie’s other reference to racism and social-class disparities in America is when the grandmother and the grandson check into the hotel and the hotel manager R. J. Stringer III (played by Tucci) looks surprised to see them there. R.J. makes a comment to the grandson that the hotel normally doesn’t get a kid like him as a guest. It’s a racially tinged, condescending remark that the grandmother picks up on right away, and she lets this stuck-up manager know that she and her grandson will be treated with the same amount of respect that the other hotel guests get.

And speaking of the other hotel guests, there’s a snobbish British couple named Mr. Jenkins (played by Charles Edwards) and Mrs. Jenkins (played by Morgana Robinson) who are at the hotel with their insecure son Bruno Jenkins (played by Codie-Lei Eastick). Bruno tries to make friends with the grandson, but Bruno’s domineering mother won’t let him. And there’s a convention going on at the hotel for a group calling itself the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, whose members are all women who wear long gloves. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who these women really are.

“Roald Dahl’s The Witches” is a by-the-numbers story that hits all the familiar beats of similar movies, and it culminates in a showdown that goes exactly how you would expect it to go. There’s nothing wrong with the acting from the cast, but it’s just so predictable and generic. (Spencer plays yet another matronly woman who gets sassy when she has to be.) Children under the age of 14 will probably enjoy this film the most. But for people who’ve got more life experience and have seen enough movies like this already, “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” is just too cookie-cutter to really have much substance and make a lasting impact on viewers.

HBO Max premiered “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” on October 22, 2020.