Did you have the pants scared off you as a kid by the fearful face-peeling fun of Nic Roeg’s 1990 adaptation of The Witches? If so, good news: Robert Zemeckis’ family-friendly crack at Roald Dahl’s dark fantasy is more heartwarmer than seat-wetter.
Flaunting his veteran storytelling skills and Forrest Gump-style retro-setting knack, Zemeckis transplants the story to small-town ’60s Alabama, where Octavia Spencer’s wise granny cheers up her suddenly orphaned grandson Boy (a nicely natural Jahzir Bruno) with big love, Motown music and a pet mouse. But the film blooms into full-on colourful, campy style when Granny whisks them to a posh seaside hotel to escape a prowling local witch.
As Boy and new friend Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick) are transformed into mice by a child-hating witches’ convention masquerading as a charity, Zemeckis uncorks a crate of CGI, with purple potions sending projectile rodents whizzing through the air. But Anne Hathaway’s wackily vampy Grand High Witch, with her wriggly extending arm-claws, Cruella De Vil costumes, and Joker-style slashed demon mouth sets the film’s tone to cartoonish rather than creepy. Unlike the haughty horror of Anjelica Huston’s 1990 turn, Hathaway aims for hammy, funny villainy, and has a whale of a time doing so.
As Boy and co. battle the witches’ global kid-crushing plan, the film shifts into Stuart Little territory, investing in air-vent dashes and comic confrontations. This is a tale of kid-rodent courage and ingenuity rather than a big-scale action-adventure, one that may feel dated to some. Its cosy, child-centred action really needs more distinctive Matilda-esque Dahl cruelty to ginger it up.
Still, its thoughtfully diverse setting, full-throttle pace and message of resilience and responsibility give it enough heart and half-pint horror for a family Halloween viewing.