A young boy and his grandmother have a run-in with a coven of witches and their leader.
The peril is mild in this gorgeous but soulless remake, even though the future of all the world’s children is at stake.
The Witches 2.0(20) didn’t cast its spell on me, though for children who haven’t seen Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 version, it’s an entertaining-enough endeavour. (I was going to say for kids who would find the original too frightening, before remembering that teenies and tweenies are bloodthirsty little sods.)
This is a lush, colourful retelling with Anne Hathaway giving it her all as queen of camp, though it loses the gleeful, child-hating menace of Roald Dahl’s story.
It also loses the most uncomfortable part of the book and first film, that always lingered longer even than Angelica Huston and her transformation: the story related to Luke by his grandmother about her childhood friend, kidnapped by a witch and then trapped in a painting in her family’s house. Left there to grow old, she eventually dies and disappears from it entirely.
In this new version, Grandma (Octavia Spencer) does relate a creepy tale from her childhood about her best friend Alice, who is turned into a chicken after taking sweets from the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) herself. Though while it is in the spirit of Dahl, being both sad and cruelly funny, it doesn’t have nearly the same horrifying power, and it means the film misses out on that feeling of pervasive forboding and evil always at the edges of life.
This time the action has move from a dreary English seaside town to Alabama in 1968, where a few days before Christmas Hero Boy’s parents are killed in a road accident. He goes to live with his granny, who knows a thing or two about witches, the power of herbs, and life and how unfair it is.
The house is full of music, though he keeps himself to himself in the neighbourhood – teaching tricks to Daisy the pet mouse, bought for him by his grandma. He sees his first witch in the grocery store, and soon Grandma, sensing they are approaching, decides she and Hero Boy (Jahzir Bruno) need to leave to keep themselves safe.
She books them into the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel, on the basis that “witches prey on the poor, the overlooked,” and won’t come anywhere near this imposing residence full of rich white people. Unfortunately their stay coincides with a meeting of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Children, a front for the world’s witches, led by the Grand High Witch.
The entertaining “how to spot a witch” instructions remain: she’s actually a demon in female form, with a bald head made scaly thanks to wig rash. She has claws instead of hands, stumpy, toeless feet, and nostrils that grow larger when she’s sniffing out a child.
Scariest of all, all witches have strange scar-like lines at the sides of their mouths, which open up when their mouths need to expand into horrifying gaping holes. And they absolutely hate children, who smell like dog droppings to them when freshly cleaned.
Hero Boy meets another lonely kid, English boy Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), and I like to think this continued English influence is why the witches seal the conference room door with what looks like a giant Twiglet.
The Grand High Witch has a game-changing plan to rid the world of children, using her new mouse-maker formula. Their unwitting test subject is Bruno, who is soon scuttling around the room squeaking, until Daisy, hiding with Hero Boy in a vent, rescues him.
Grandma tries to reverse engineer the potion to find an antidote but her knowledge of herbs is no match for the witches’ magic. The mice then head to the hotel kitchen and pour the stolen bottle of formula into the witches’ soup, resulting in a dining room chain reaction of witch-to-mouse transformations like popcorn in a hot pan.
Hathaway is a hoot, though her accent meanders like a stream through the chilly mountains of Norway. Spencer is a warm and battling presence; her Grandma certainly has the loving nature mixed with honesty about what this world is really like, and knows hiding Hero Boy from it won’t help in the long run. (Casting Black actors as Grandma and Hero Boy brings into sharp relief why Grandma is how she is: protecting her grandson while also equipping him with the skills to navigate a cruel and unequal world and fight back against a foe that targets the less privileged.)
The costumes are lush and gorgeous, and the Grand High Witch, with no toes, is probably the only woman in the world who can wear those pointy-ended stilettos without collapsing in tearful agony after three steps.
Despite the film’s richness it feels frayed and unfinished; herbs and numerology feature in minor ways but beyond that there’s no sense that there is a magic world of demons and spells hiding in plain sight.
The expanding mouths are horrific rather than frightening, and the scariest moments are probably when the Grand High Witch is herself “ratified” by the squeaking threesome, and comes after them. Grandma traps her in a jar, then puts the witch’s own cat familiar onto her.
Apart from Josette Simon’s Zelda, the other witches are mostly generic, and there’s none of the slapstick of the original film, the kind of silly comedy children love. Stanley Tucci, as hotel manager Mr Stringer, is forgettable.
In its favour, the film holds its nerve at the end, with all three mice remaining in that state. “Life changes all of us,” says Grandma to Hero Boy. They estimate he will live three times as long as a normal mouse, which he’s happy with as he reasons he won’t be left alone once his grandmother dies.
It’s the saddest line in the film, though the sadness is not just what he’ll miss out on being a mouse, but that to Hero Boy it’s a happy ending. It’s also an indication of how impossible it would be to return to a “normal life” once he knows about the sheer numbers of witches around the world.
Instead, after returning to Grandma’s with Bruno and Mary, they become Witch Hunters; using the Grand High Witch’s secret money stash and witches’ address book, they set out to destroy them and teach other children to fight back.
Note: There’s a mid-credits scene set in their witch hunters trailer, teaching children how to avoid being caught by witches. Hero Boy is now as middle aged, greying mouse, but still enthusiastic about the fight.
Watch the trailer now: