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.

Review: ‘This Is Stand-Up,’ starring Jerry Seinfeld, Jamie Foxx, Kevin Hart, Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman, Sebastian Maniscalco and D.L. Hughley

April 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

D.L. Hughley in “This Is Stand-Up” (Photo courtesy of Comedy Central)

“This Is Stand-Up”

Directed by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton

Culture Representation: This documentary is a compilation of interviews, performances and off-stage footage of a racially diverse group (white, African American, Latino and Asian) of well-known, mostly American stand-up comedians.

Culture Clash: The general consensus in the documentary is that being a professional stand-up comedian goes against what most people consider as having a “normal life.”

Culture Audience: “This Is Stand-Up” will appeal primarily to people who are stand-up comedy fans, even though the documentary ignores many problems (such as sexism, joke stealing and monetary rip-offs) in the business side of stand-up comedy.

Garry Shandling in “This Is Stand-Up” (Photo courtesy of Comedy Central)

“This Is Stand-Up” is kind of like the documentary equivalent of speed-dating. The movie packs in many famous stand-up comedians, who deliver a lot of personality soundbites, but ultimately there’s not a lot of depth or anything new that’s revealed for people who already know about the stand-up comedy world. Although a few of the comedians talk about their personal struggles, most just share anecdotes and advice, and the documentary doesn’t acknowledge the sexist and cutthroat side of the business.

Filmed over five years, “This Is Stand-Up” (directed by Paul Toogood and Lloyd Stanton) has a “who’s who” of stand-up comedians (almost all American) who are interviewed in the documentary. They include Judd Apatow, David A. Arnold, Dave Attell, Maria Bamford, Bill Bellamy, Gina Brillon, Cocoa Brown, Cedric The Entertainer, Tommy Davidson, Mike Epps, Jamie Foxx, Gilbert Gottfried, Eddie Griffin, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, D. L. Hughley, Mia Jackson, Jim Jefferies, Jessica Kirson, Bert Kreischer, Bobby Lee, Carol Leifer, George Lopez, Sebastian Maniscalco, Jay Mohr, Jim Norton, Rick Overton, Paul Provenza, Chris Rock, Bob Saget, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Garry Shandling, Sarah Silverman, Owen Smith, Kira Soltanovich, Beth Stelling, Taylor Tomlinson, Theo Von and Keenen Ivory Wayans. (Noticeably missing: Dave Chappelle.)

Toogood and Lloyd are Brits who previously directed the documentary “Dying Laughing,” which had a limited theatrical release in 2017. “Dying Laughing” was an interview-only film about stand-up comedians, and featured many of the same people as in “This Is Stand-Up,” such as Seinfeld, Hart, Silverman, Rock, Shandling, Schumer and Cedric The Entertainer. “Dying Laughing” also had more international representation, since it included comedians from Canada (such as Russell Peters), the United Kingdom (Billy Connolly) and Australia (Jim Jeffries).  In “This Is Stand-Up,” Jeffries is the only non-American comedian interviewed in the movie. British comedian Ricky Gervais is shown as a guest on Norton’s SiriusXM radio show, but he’s not interviewed specifically for this movie.

Although it’s important for the documentary to include on-stage footage of the comedians, the best parts of the movie are when the comedians are shown off-stage. Stand-up comedy routines on stage can easily be accessed on the Internet, so “This Is Stand-Up” shines when it has exclusive footage of what the comedians are like in their homes or backstage. Mohr, Tomlinson and Kresicher are among those interviewed in their homes, while some of the memorable tour footage includes Maniscalco and  the “Kings of Comedy” team of Hughley, Lopez, Cedric The Entertainer and Eddie Griffin.

“This Is Stand-Up” is also a good introduction to hear some origin stories from famous comedians if you’ve never heard before how they got interested in doing stand-up comedy. (Die-hard fans of these comedians probably know these stories already, but the documentary assumes not everyone will know about these comedians’ backgrounds.) Silverman says, “When I was 3 years old, my dad taught me to swear, and he thought that was hilarious. I got crazy with power over that. I got addicted to that feeling.”

Schumer says her first introduction to performing in front of an audience and getting laughs was when she was in school plays—but she was getting laughed at for the wrong reasons. It made her angry until a teacher pointed out to her that people laughing at her performance is a good thing because laughter makes people happy.

Foxx remembers being the type of kid who was always mouthing off in class. Instead of sending him to the principal’s office, one of his teachers set aside time in class for Foxx to tell stories. According to Foxx, it was such a hit that other teachers would visit the classroom to watch him perform.

Maniscalco says that he was the opposite of the class clown. He describes himself as a shy and quiet kid who preferred to observe people. And for Rock, his first inclination to perform on stage was inspired by his grandfather, who was a reverend for their family’s church. Rock says that he saw how his grandfather was the center of attention, and it was the kind of attention that Rock wanted too.

In fact, almost all of the comedians in the documentary say in one way or another that being the center of attention is their main motivation for doing stand-up comedy, despite it being a very emotionally demanding way to make a living. Lopez comments, “What I like about comedy is that it’s given me a great life. And now, I know I’m important.”

However, it’s not a revelation that comedians are very insecure in their real lives. Most have openly admitted to being insecure and/or emotionally damaged. And many have even used their insecurities as the basis of their on-stage personas. It’s also clear from watching this documentary that most of the comedians use comedy as a way to fill a deep emotional void to make themselves feel wanted in this world.

Von (who first came to national prominence in the 2000s as a star of the MTV reality show “Road Rules”) is one of the comedians in the documentary who is followed on tour, instead of just doing an in-studio interview. He talks about his financially deprived background and unhappy childhood, which are the foundation for much of the material in his stand-up act. But he also opens up by saying that part of his motivation for doing stand-up comedy is so his mother will approve, since he says he’s never seen her laugh.

The problem with how the filmmakers deal with these stories and anecdotes is that there’s no outside verification. The documentary does not interview anyone who knew these comedians “way back when” or even people who helped give these comedians their big breaks. Everything in the film exists in the vacuum of what the comedians want to say, without including hardly any other perspectives.

One of the exceptions is when the documentary goes to the home of Kreischer and shows some of his life with his wife and two young daughters, who are all interviewed on camera. He gets visibly uncomfortable when his daughters admit that they don’t like it when he’s away on tour. Family members of the other comedians are not interviewed in this documentary.

The nature of stand-up comedy is for comedians to often exaggerate about their lives in order to be funny. “This Is Stand-Up” takes everything that these comedians say at face value and doesn’t dig much deeper. For example, several of the comedians, such as Hart and Bellamy, talk about the importance for comedians to find their unique voices and identities, but the movie doesn’t give examples of how these comedians have evolved.

Hart says, “It takes a little time to develop who develop who you are or who you want to be. I was definitely guilty of that in the beginning of my career. I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t know I could be myself.” That’s all well and good, but if we’re being honest, that’s pretty generic and vague advice.

The comedians talk a lot about how honing the craft of stand-up comedy involves a lot of practice at open-mic nights for little to no money. And getting to the level of headlining a show can sometimes take years. Comedians such as Seinfeld don’t believe there should be any shortcuts to stand-up comedy fame—people have to pay their dues on stage in front of live audiences, not in front of a mirror or on a YouTube channel.

There’s also an entire segment of the documentary devoted to how to deal with heckling and bombing on stage. Shandling talks about once being so paralyzed with humiliation after bombing from a show that he stayed in a car and couldn’t move for about 15 minutes. Rock’s advice for comedians is to resist the inclination to talk faster when being heckled and instead to slow down and take back control.

However, there’s no mention in the documentary about all the sleazy things that comedians encounter on the way to the top—the rip-offs, the unscrupulous managers/agents, or even the difficulty in getting managers or agents in the first place. And because there’s a limited number of comedy clubs in any given big city, it’s a very insular network where the venue owners and concert promoters have a lot of control.

The documentary includes a diverse mix of comedians, yet doesn’t mention a big problem in stand-up comedy: sexism against women. And the movie has an unrealistic portrayal of stand-up comedians as this “we all support each other” community. (The movie uses “The Kings of Comedy” tour as an example.)

Although there can sometimes be camaraderie among comedians, the reality is that stand-up comedy is and can be very cutthroat. This documentary doesn’t even mention the widespread problem of comedians stealing each other’s jokes. And this documentary completely ignores the bitter rivalries that happen in stand-up comedy.

Seinfeld, one of the highest-paid stand-up comedians of all time, echoes what many of the comedians say in the film: Preparing a stand-up comedy show is a lot harder than people think it is. He says, “I adore the rigorous difficulty of creating and preparing a joke.”

He also says that there are four levels of comedy: (1) Making your friends laugh; (2) Making strangers laugh; (3) Making strangers laugh and getting paid for it; and (4) Making strangers laugh, getting paid for it, and then having them talk like you after seeing your show.

The documentary also covers the issues of social commentary in stand-up comedy and “how far is too far.” When asked if any topic is off-limits in stand-up comedy, there’s a montage of comedians who say “no.” Hughley says, “I’ll never apologize for telling a joke.”

Griffin adds, “It’s always comedy’s job to speak knowledge to power about what people are upset about, because comedy has always been about the people.” He compares stand-up comedians to being the modern equivalents of court jesters.

Silverman (who’s no stranger to controversy) comments on how smartphones and social media have impacted stand-up comedy: “It’s especially daunting now, because people are recording with their stupid phones and posting stuff. There’s more at stake to failing than just in the safe walls of a comedy club. That said, you have to not care.”

Although “This Is Stand-Up” fails to address the predatory side of the business (maybe that’s why managers, agents, promoters and venue owners weren’t interviewed), at least the documentary does include the reality that stand-up comedy takes a toll on comedians’ personal lives. Depression, divorce and substance abuse are common with stand-up comedians, as these problems are in many professions that require frequent traveling. But they’re especially toxic for comedians, who are more inclined to be insecure than most other people.

Brillon comments on what stand-up comedians experience in their personal lives: “Relationships suffer—not just romantic relationships, but family relationships, because stand-up becomes the longest relationship in your life—and the most abusive. And you still love it and go back to it.”

Mohr, who’s been very open about his struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, says that for him, stand-up comedy is his greatest love and biggest addiction. Even if he wanted to stop, he says, he’s compelled to keep going: “To be a stand-up comic, you have to be completely unreasonable, unwell and unhinged.”

Haddish explains why stand-up comedians are driven to do what they do: “When you’re on stage, it’s like being next to God … Comedy is the most fantastic medicine you can imagine, not just for the audience, but for the comedian.”

“This Is Stand-Up” might not be very revealing about a lot of showbiz realities, since documentaries and biographies about several famous comedians have already uncovered the dark sides to stand-up comedy. This documentary is, as Toogood describes it in a Comedy Central press release, “a love letter” to stand-up comedians—at least the ones who are famous enough to be in this film. If you want some in-depth insight into on all the sleaze and heartaches these comedians had to go through to get to where they are now, then you’ll have to look elsewhere for those real stories.

Comedy Central premiered “This Is Stand-Up” on April 12, 2020.