There’s no eye of newt or toe of frog in “Roald Dahl’s The Witches,” Robert Zemeckis’s take on the 1983 book — just a mischief of mice, a cantankerous cat and an occasional s-s-snake. There are people, too; some buzz around in the background while others push the story forward. Chief among these are an unnamed orphan, call him the Boy (Jahzir Bruno, sweetly sensitive), and his loving grandmother (Octavia Spencer), who form a wee bulwark against witches who appear fair but are most foul.
Narrated by a distracting Chris Rock, the story primarily takes place in flashback, in 1967, starting with an accident that kills the Boy’s parents. He moves into the Alabama home of his Grandma, whose warm embrace eases his pain. Zemeckis, working from a script written with Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, handles this setup effortlessly, with his two cozily inviting leads, low-key visual panache and customary restive camerawork. Within minutes, Zemeckis has created a vibrantly inhabited world, even if the golden oldies on the soundtrack are overly familiar, as is his habit, and Grandma’s caky cornbread looks more Northern than Southern.
The witches sidle in, disguised and cunning. One materializes in a once-upon-a-time tale; another pops up in the present. Amid intimations of doom, Grandma and the Boy decamp to a resort hotel, a nonsensical turn that’s effectively a narrative contrivance. There, they soon find themselves facing down a coven of witches stirring up trouble. United by their hatred of children, the twisted sisters are led by the Grand High Witch (an amusing Anne Hathaway), who arrives with a black cat, a trunk stuffed with cash and a vile plan. Speaking in a vaguely Eastern European accent with Nordic notes, she has a cavernous mouth and jagged teeth right out of del Toro’s imaginarium.
Zemeckis improves on the first film adaptation, a 1990 oddity directed by Nicolas Roeg. There’s more heart in the new version and more emotion, qualities which can go missing in those Zemeckis movies that get lost in his technical whiz-bangery. Here, the Boy feelingly mourns his parents, creating a tangible sense of loss that strengthens the story and raises its stakes. As the Boy heals, Zemeckis pumps up the design and sets his cameras to giddily flying. Everything is slicker and grander in this iteration, including the hotel, which now looks like a supersized plantation. The movie doesn’t do much with this iconography, but it resonates simply because the heroes are now Black.
Mostly the movie is all shivers and silliness until the High Witch and her minions gather. By that point, she has peeled off her wig and bared her sharp teeth, exposing her true evil self. Witches may look like women, as Grandma warns the Boy, but they’re demons. Roeg literalized that idea by revealing the High Witch (Anjelica Huston) as a blobby, warty monster who speaks with a German accent and calls her cat “Liebchen.” Hathaway’s witch largely retains her human shape, which only makes her more menacing when she explains her plan. She wants “every child in the vorld rubbed out, squashed.” To do that, the witches will turn children into mice.
In his review of the 1990 film, the British critic Philip French singled out this scene, noting that “consciously or subconsciously, Dahl is playing with the rhetoric and imagery of the Final Solution.” Zemeckis seems to have tried to attenuate this association by cranking up the comedy and the High Witch’s voice. Even so, the scene retains its queasiness when read through the lens of Dahl’s anti-Semitism. Its macabre humor can be viewed as classic Dahl, a modern riff on a grim fairy tale. But it’s also ambiguously coded. The witches aren’t Nazis; rather, they evoke the demonic figures of blood libel, the slander that Jews ritualistically sacrificed Christian babies.
“The Witches” isn’t a hate tract; it’s just a weird stew of jokes, fantastical turns, swooping cameras, half-baked ideas and ugly signifiers. It’s also a missed opportunity because by not radically upending Dahl’s story, the movie remains burdened by its creepiness. That’s too bad, especially given the fruitful liberties this version does take, notably with its casting and shift to the 1960s American South. Even if Zemeckis et al. don’t do much with this transposition, it’s satisfying that the story’s heroes are now a Black child and woman. It works like a charm, for one, and it isn’t ambiguous at all.
Roald Dahl’s The Witches
Rated PG for threats against children. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.