Season of the Witch(es)

Now with CGI!

As a child of the 1980’s, I was the perfect age to be utterly traumatized by 1990’s The Witches. I can’t remember how I watched the movie; I imagine it was on TV after its theatrical run. Having never read any of Roald Dahl’s books (though in stark contrast, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory remains to this day one of my favorite movies), I was not familiar with this particular story or the utter terror the film version would unleash on my unsuspecting psyche.

I kid, of course, though the movie really did scare me – and stayed with me for years! For the uninitiated [Spoiler alert for all things Witches], the 90’s movie was a tale about a young boy named Luke (Jasen Fisher), who, after his parents are killed in a car accident, goes to live with his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) in England. She tells him stories about witches: how they are real and how they live to exterminate children.

They decide to go on holiday at fancy resort – managed by Mr. Stringer (Rowan Atkinson) – where coincidentally, the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston) is holding a meeting with all the witches in England. Luke overhears her newest plan: the witches will open candy shops and treat all the candy with her Formula 86 – which when ingested, turns a child (or an unlucky adult) into a mouse. How will she ensure victory? Free samples, of course!

To demonstrate, the Grand High Witch (GHW) lures bratty Bruno Jenkins (Charlie Potter) into her clutches with a Formula 86’d chocolate bar; he eats it and promptly turns into a mouse. He escapes, but Luke is also turned into a mouse. In the end, Bruno, Luke and Helga manage to defeat the witches by dumping a bottle of Formula 86 into their soup, turning them all into mice. The GHW is killed, and mice Bruno and Luke return home with their respective families. Luke has the GHW’s personal trunk (filled with money and the addresses of every witch in America) delivered to his grandmother’s house; he says with the money they can hunt them down.

At the end of the film, the GHW’s resentful assistant, Miss Irvine (Jane Horrocks) tracks down Luke and turns him back into a boy. Luke yells “don’t forget Bruno!” as she drives off, and everyone presumably lives happily ever after.

Of course, since this film was released in 1990, there was no such thing as CGI, and the practical special effects – done by none other than Jim Henson himself – were quite spectacular. The reason the movie was so scary to me, was the “true” appearance of Huston’s Grand High Witch. As a lady, she was beautiful; as the GHW she was utterly grotesque (her disgusting visage was the thumbnail Netflix used, for me at least – Google it if you’ve never seen it). The kids’ mouse-transformations were also pretty great, and also a little scary.

As Hollywood loves to do, 30 years later, we get a new version of the film courtesy of Robert Zemeckis and HBO Max: Roald Dahl’s The Witches. This movie was truly ripe for a remake, since special effects have made huge leaps and bounds in last 30 years. Because both films were based on the same source material, the bones of the story remain unchanged; though the boy (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) are not named in this movie – instead we hear Chris Rock narrate parts of the story as the future boy. I’ve seen some articles refer to the boy as Charlie and his grandma as Agatha, but in-movie, I don’t believe their names are said.

In Roald Dahl’s The Witches, the setting has been moved from England to Alabama. The GHW (Anne Hathaway) doesn’t appear to be grotesque in this version, and she doesn’t have an underappreciated assistant. The witches themselves have a different aesthetic; they all have Heath-Ledger-as-Joker-like mouth scars that open wide when they’re in full witch mode. Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci) is only around for what seems like a few minutes, and a new character – a former child turned mouse named Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth) – is added to help the boys.

Ultimately even with updated visuals – which are impressive – the remake is fairly bland. There doesn’t seem to be a reason for moving the setting to the United States, and it makes no difference to the story. In the original, the resort is busy and bustling and real; the hotel in the remake seems empty inside and there are only a few scenes with staff and other guests – it seems like a movie set. Even the addition of a girl mouse doesn’t add anything to the story; I thought Daisy might teach the boys how to be mice, but just like the original film, that particular point is glossed over.

The remake also tries to add a bit of humor to the proceedings, but the jokes just fall flat. In one scene Mr. Stringer is asking the GHW about her soup preference, and she tells him her whole group has an aversion to “garlic,” a word she pronounces so oddly, he can’t understand her. This garlic phobia is never explained – apparently it repels vampires and witches?

Speaking of the GHW, Anne Hathaway’s performance is… perplexing. She is wildly inconsistent with both her accent (German? French? Spanish? They’re all in there somewhere), and mannerisms. Sometimes she sounds snake-like; sometimes she sounds like, well, Anne Hathaway. She is over-the-top campy and gets to strut around in some nifty witchy outfits, but as an antagonist she’s just kind of… there. She’s scary at times, though not at nearly as scary as Huston. According to IMDB a lot of actresses were up for this role, and I can’t help but wonder what someone with a little more presence would have done. I think Hathaway just isn’t physically imposing enough to pull off the role; Huston, by comparison, was taller than the other witches and seemed to command attention where Hathaway just blends in. Personality-wise, you understand how evil she is when Huston’s GHW pushes a baby carriage down a hill towards a cliff; Hathaway just whines about how many kids are around. As I’ve not read the book, I can’t tell if this GHW is closer to Dahl’s vision for his character, but Huston was iconic; Hathaway is not.

Octavia Spencer, as Grandma, is arguably the best part of the film. She is at the same time tough and loving, sick but strong. I think she is the closest approximation to her 90’s counterpart, with the added trait of being a sort of voodoo shamaness; her character was the only one even close to being fleshed out. We get a clear sense of who she is and why she has a personal interest in taking down the witches. I also liked Jahzir Bruno as the boy hero; his energy was fun to watch and he looked like he was having a blast. As a mouse, his line readings were also great; the exuberance of a child-turned-mouse I thought was spot-on. Chris Rock’s narration gets to be a little grating, and is not consistent enough to warrant it being in the movie; it also doesn’t bring any additional insight and probably could have just opened and closed the film. And while I love Kristin Chenoweth (RIP Pushing Daisies), her character added nothing of substance.

So while Roald Dahl’s The Witches makes some interesting choices, it doesn’t live up to the cult 1990 adaptation. Spencer and Bruno are a great team and grandmother and grandson, while Hathaway is interesting as the GHW. She’s entertaining to watch, but only to see what she’ll do or say – and how she’ll say it – next; she’s not exactly “evil-personified”, as Huston seemed to be. If given the choice, I’d still watch the nightmare-fueled 90’s version – even if I sleep a little less soundly for a night or two. M

Bits and Bobs:

  • Just as with the 90’s movie, I saw men-as-witches in the meeting scene. It was a little less noticeable this time around, but is it that difficult to make actual women look less attractive?
  • The special effects were great; though I found the “explosions” when people turned into mice a little odd. In the original the transformation was just a shrinking down with a puff of purple smoke; in this version the person physically pops up into the air then glides down in their clothing to emerge as a mouse. It was just an odd effect.
  • The GHW’s extendo-hands were something I was not at all expecting.
  • The GHW is still a cat lover, which leads to her presumed demise. In the original she calls her cat Liebchen (German for sweetheart), but in this version her cat is called Hades.
  • To match the location, the soup that is tainted is now split-pea.
  • Grandma tries to make an antidote to Formula 86, but fails.
  • The kitchen scene is much shorter, and the boy/mouse hero doesn’t get his tail cut.
  • Inexplicably, when the witches are changed to mice, the other witches were trying to kill the mouse-witches. Why?
  • The GHW kinda disappears as the witches turn to mice; in this version she doesn’t drink the soup, but the children/mice make her drink the formula separately; she still turns into a gross rat and gets trapped under a bucket and it’s implied (but not seen) the GHW is killed by her cat.
  • That ending! I understand it’s closer to Dahl’s book’s ending, but the boy, Bruno and Daisy (still mice) go to live with Grandma. In a mid-credits scene we learn the boy is now an older mouse, training kids with his Grandma to hunt witches. It actually makes perfect sense in context, but is still kind of a bummer – kinda sums up this film, actually!