ROALD DAHL’s 1983 fantasy novel, The Witches, begins with a simple declaration: “This is not a fairy tale.” Witches, says the unnamed storyteller, are real. They live among us, demons indistinguishable from real women, determined to kill children. The boy is familiar with this frightening but also urgent reality: he is broadcasting the immediate threat of a worldwide network of bloodthirsty child predators. It’s an intimate and conspiratorial revelation, which draws readers in by whispering secret truths that adults usually don’t want them to know: Not only is the world not safe from young people, it is also dishonest, treacherous, and cruel.
As the story goes, the narrator tells of his fateful encounter with the evil Grand High Witch – the great and lousy boss of all the witches around the world – with all the witches of England, a showdown that shapes his life. While on vacation in a beach town with his grandmother, he comes across a hush-hush witch conference, where the great witch explains a plot to turn all the children in the world into mice. (Witches disguise themselves in society against cruelty to children.)
The Witches “offers a strange drink that doesn’t work but is fascinating for reasons, from the people responsible for directing this film in contrast to the graphic novel and the 1990 movie based on the dark childhood story of Roald Dahl. The version of Warner Bros. was swept up for airing on HBO Max, and that’s probably the home.
Dahl has a legendary of an erratic on-screen story (see “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ and less successful ‘The BFG’). Still, this story truly falls into a no-man’s land, a bit too spooky for the youngest and too cartoonish—the older ones.
This leaves their parents, who might enjoy the thick-accented, landscape-devouring performance of Anne Hathaway as Grand High Witch — much like Anjelica Huston’s portrait thirty years ago – without feeling obligated to visit a theater to consume it.
As for the previous auspices, the anticipated film was directed by Robert Zemeckis, whose long CV includes relevant titles such as “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “The Polar Express.” Meanwhile, the screenplay is credited to Zemeckis, “Black-ish” producer Kenya Barris and director Guillermo del Toro, who at one point contemplated an animated version in stop-motion. This mix of sensibility produces a seemingly snatched concoction from Tim Burton’s filmography’s lower echelons, with eccentricity being the main draw.
The most significant change is moving history from England to Alabama in the 1960s, which in some ways gives it a new twist (including the racial overtones), but not in a defining way.
The protagonist remains an orphaned boy (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno of “Atlanta,” with Chris Rock recounting the film as his adult incarnation), forced to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after the death of his parents. Grandma is wise with witches’ ways and warns him that they ‘hate children,’ approach the human form, and ‘fall prey to the poor, those who are overlooked.’
Faced with such a threat, the couple goes to a fancy hotel to hide for a while, but thankfully, the place hosts a witches convention. When the boy inadvertently encounters the gathering, he transforms into a mouse before attempting to thwart the coven’s nefarious plan with the help of rodent-sized friends.
After a somewhat relaxed start, “The Witches” becomes a crazy caper with not very distinctive computer-animated characters. The result is essentially a hard-wired Halloween movie with an above-average cast, including a mini “The Devil Wears Prada” by Hathaway and Stanley Tucci as the official hotel manager.
HBO Max (like Warner Bros. and CNN, part of WarnerMedia) could benefit from offering this youth-focused title to families as a streaming treat, but this would likely have been a challenging theatrical sale under the best of circumstances.
In that regard, “The Witches” joins a generally not pleasing list of kids’ movies that have been diverted to streaming since the start of the coronavirus epidemic, reflecting a reasonably clear-cut studio assessment of their potential. (The film will still hit theaters in select markets around the world.)
For cinephiles, the auspices of “The Witches” have some intrigue, including Academy Award-winning director Alfonso Cuaron among the producers. Aside from that sense of curiosity, this long-lasting drink doesn’t justify all the hard work and effort.