Movie Review: “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” (2020)

It is essential to, at some point in a review of the new version of “The Witches,” based on Roald Dahl’s novel, to call the movie “deeply weird.” So, right now, right off the bat, let’s get it out of the way – this movie is deeply weird. And, for what it’s worth, the first adaptation is deeply weird as well and, although I’ve never read it, I now have to believe that the novel must also be deeply weird.

Fully titled, “Roald Dahl’s The Witches,” this update is directed by Robert Zemeckis and features a screenplay from Zemeckis & Kenya Barris and Guillermo Del Toro. It is, in the most basic sense, about a boy who gets turned into a mouse by some witches and has to fight back alongside a couple of other kids turned mice and his grandmother, who is not a mouse.

As the explanation from the grandmother (Octavia Spencer) goes, witches are hideous creatures who hate kids. It is therefore quite unfortunate that this particular kid, named only as Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno), and his grandmother wind up at a hotel where the witches are having a convention. It is during this convention that the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) divulges her plans to turn all the children of the world into mice using a special potion.

Only the youngest members of the audience will find scares in the movie, but from top to bottom the thing is creepy and disturbing. Although they hide it in public, the witches are bald, have claws instead of hands, and lack feet. Their mouths are huge and they certainly appear to have extra sharp teeth. They can fly and have peculiar accents. And those arms that end in claws? Those arms can seemingly extend to whatever length, albeit slowly, that the witch would like.

The computer graphics are regularly imperfect, the children-as-mice often look animated, but Zemeckis and the cast carry it through with such conviction that it all conveys something close enough to real for the movie to work. Even Hathaway’s huge performance and semi-permanent accent work to the film’s advantage.

What advantage? The deeply weird nature of it all. The movie is all about that aforementioned deeply weird nature.

Except for the parents of Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), one of the children-turned-mice, no one seems particularly distressed by what has happened to Hero Boy and Bruno and Daisy (the other child turned mouse and voiced by Kristin Chenoweth). Sure, these three don’t want it to happen to other kids and they set out to foil the witches’ plans, but no one is really too broken up over their new mouse-ness. It is just kind of a matter of fact thing… like how they call Mary by the name Hero Boy gives her, Daisy, even after they find out her name is actually Mary.

So, witches are real, they’re trying to end humanity by turning children into mice, they’ve turned the hero of this story into a mouse, Daisy is Mary, Grandma clearly has some awful disease that’s making her sick and never discussed beyond a mention of her cough, and the plot must be foiled. It all just is. Chris Rock is providing narration as an adult version of Hero Boy, so we know that he must come through, which helps eliminate some of the fear factor, but it doesn’t make any of it less weird.

Obviously, all of issues above matter even if they’re not delved into, but the movie has other things lurking as well.

Whereas the original film took place in England and featured a largely white cast, crucially, this one takes place in 1960s’ Alabama and the Hero Boy and Grandma are both African American while Anne Hathaway is white. The manager at the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel, Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci) is also white, while the bellboys and maids and maintenance staff are African American. An expensive place, this hotel caters to a largely white clientele. It is only a family connection that gets Grandma and Hero Boy a room there.

There is then a question of race that has to come up. It exists there throughout the story (it must be said that some witches are minorities as well), but, like the witches themselves, it’s all kind of just accepted as fact. It is something that has to be fixed (the audience presumes), like attempting to end the witches’ plot, but is never addressed in as overt a fashion.

Are we meant to read the story then as an allegory for racism – the goal of the white people/ witches is to turn the African Americans/children into little thing like servants/mice, scurrying around at their feet; to make them something which is there but perhaps not acknowledged? It is an easy line to draw, but it is not a thought which the movie ever really explores. Yes, that would make it just like the witches’ plot, but it deserves more.

And so, we again return to the deeply weird nature of the film; the matter-of-factness of it all. Is the movie brilliant because it presents these elements simply as truths to be accepted or is the movie deeply and irrevocably flawed by lacking an exploration? Does the movie expect more from the audience than to be passive observers of what is taking place or does it just fail to carry through any of the ideas within it? Maybe it attempts the former but is just misguided.

The discussion to this point doesn’t even grapple with Roald Dahl’s own racism/anti-Semitism. Could the movie be using Dahl’s own work against its creator’s beliefs? Such potential does exist, but one can’t get past the idea that the movie doesn’t ever drill down on any issues so one can’t really know.

Yes, this is all deeply weird.

With what are we then left? We have a tale of children being turned into mice, something that is acknowledged as bad when done to the world as a whole, but where these particular kids are able to easily overcome their own rodent nature with ease. We have a story where the notion of race and racism is undoubtedly involved but, just like the mice stuff, not really explored. Then, on a completely separate level, we have a very big, rather memorable, Anne Hathaway performance and the incredibly touching humanity of Octavia Spencer. We have an undoubted sense of creepiness about the movie itself and so many questions that will never, ever, be answered.

It is all both too much and too little.

photo credit: Warner Bros.

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