October 22, 2020 Roald Dahl’s The Witches (Movie Review)
Three Oscar winners, an Oscar nominee, three adorable, talking mice, and Chris Rock—ain’t nothing wrong with that! It’s fun for the entire family with the Fantasy Adventure Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which premieres on HBOMax today, Thursday, October 22, 2020, thanks to Warner Bros. Pictures.
With an A-list cast and crew that features the likes of Oscar winners Robert Zemeckis, Anne Hathaway, and Octavia Spencer, along with Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci, the multi-talented spitfire Kristin Chenoweth, and comedy legend Chris Rock, you know the results will shine. And they do just this in the new family-friendly offering, directed by the legendary Zemekis (Back to the Future 1985, Forrest Gump 1994). Based on Roald Dahl’s 1983 Dark Fantasy children’s novel of the same name, the most important thing you need to know is this: Witches are real and they hate children.
Recently orphaned, our eight-year-old hero (Jahzir Bruno: Atlanta series, The Oath series) goes to live with his loving grandmother (Spencer: The Help 2011, The Shape of Water 2017) in rural Alabama in the late ‘60s. It’s not long before a surprise encounter with a witch in a local store sends the pair fleeing to the seaside, to the opulent Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel which is run with a beautiful lack of precision by Mr. Stringer (Tucci: The Lovely Bones 2009, The Hunger Games 2012).
As luck would have it the coven, or “rotary club for witches,” is also in residence, and the grandmother-grandson duo quickly catches the eye of the merciless Grand High Witch (Hathaway: Les Misérable 2012, Ocean’s 8 2018), the ruler of them all. Soon after their arrival, an unfortunate rendezvous with some No. 86 Delayed-action Mouse-making Potion leaves our hero wearing a furry coat. Joined by his pet mouse, Daisy (Chenoweth: Glee series, BoJack Horseman series), and another young hotel guest named Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick: Holmes & Watson 2018), he will have to aid his grandmother in the battle against the Grand High Witch and her nefarious minions if he ever hopes to be a real boy again.
With a screenplay by Zemeckis and Kenya Barris (black-ish series, Shaft 2019), along with Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006, The Shape of Water 2017), The Witches is built on an immensely strong foundation. From this, Zemeckis adds visual effects that are just as thrilling as you would expect, particularly when it comes to the use of CGI to create the story’s’ many critters. Phenomenal care is given with the mice, as well as the Grand High Witch’s black cat, all of which show the mannerisms of their living, breathing counterparts. This lends a realism to the film, and shows the filmmaker’s extravagant attention to detail.
While this is all done in fun, it’s important to note that some of the effects could possibly frighten or unnerve some very small, sensitive children. Hathaway’s sneer is often elongated beyond human proportions, and she’s embellished with fangs as well as claws and strange toes. It’s an effect that children in Kindergarten and up will likely not even bat an eye at, but some of the youngest filmgoers might be spooked. For adults, these effects, and the wonderful special effects makeup throughout, never detract from the elegant yet whimsical wardrobe design of Oscar-nominated costume designer Joanna Johnston (Lincoln 2012, Allied 2016). Providing an extravagant array of fashions, Johnston styles Hathaway with a Cruella de Vil-esue flare, while Spencer sports a vibrant, retro-floral wardrobe that includes vintage housecoats, pillbox hats, and more.
On top of all of this sits Oscar-nominated composer Alan Silvestri’s (Forrest Gump 1994, Polar Express 2004) stunning original score. But in many senses, The Witches is all about Spencer and Hathaway, the eternal battle of good versus evil, and these two ladies are divine. Spencer’s glowing warmth shines like diamonds as she tackles the role of a loving grandmother with some healing abilities of her own. The grandmother that we all want—kind-hearted and brimming with acceptance—the young and old alike are apt to walk away adoring this exceptional actress even more for her infectious dance moves and soothing smile.
Oddly, the same can be said for Hathaway, whose rotten character provides the actress with the opportunity for a genius, over-the-top portrayal. As the Grand High Witch, she sports a flawless, intentionally ridiculous Eastern European accent that provides some comedic moments. But it’s Hathaway’s grace and the way she carries her body that feels like a carefully concocted blend of Christine Baranski’s Martha May from 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Emma Roberts’ Chanel from the Scream Queens series, as well as the aforementioned Disney villain, de Vil.
Of course, the hilarious Rock has the perfect, distinctive voice for narration, and one that is apt to grab a youngster’s attention as he frames the tale. The gifted Tucci and Chenoweth are each equally wonderful in their roles, but, let’s face it, the two youngest stars deliver in spades. Being such a young actor and working alongside some serious Hollywood heavyweights cannot be an easy gig, but both Bruno and Eastick are phenomenal. Bruno, especially, is an adorable young man who is able to portray the depression that comes with losing your parents, but the endless gratitude and love for the grandmother who takes him in, no questions asked.
Overall, The Witches is a brilliant offering that’s apt to appease the entire family, from the kids to the parents to the grandparents, as well. Beautifully done and with a little something for everyone, it’s timeless lessons—life isn’t fair, don’t take candy from strangers, never give up who you are inside, etc.—help to bolster a heartwarming tale that, in truth, is much, much more than a Halloween film. Most important of all these messages, particularly in 2020, is that love will always triumph over hatred and evil. Thrilled by all the hocus pocus, Cryptic Rock gives The Witches 5 out of 5 stars.