By Staff Writer Tanisha Srivatsa
Lackluster and confusing, writer and director Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches, a film adaptation of the classic Roald Dahl novel of the same name, is a stunning work of CGI animation — but not much else. Riddled with a confusing plotline, unconvincing acting, and unnecessary dialogue, the movie is a poor reflection of its universally popular source material and fails to capture any of the childlike whimsy that ensured the original novel’s success.
The movie takes place in 1960s Alabama and centers around the story of an unnamed Black boy (Jahzir Bruno), who is sent to live with his grandma Agatha (Octavia Spencer) after his parents die in a fatal car crash. While vacationing, the two discover that their hotel is home to a convention of evil witches who hope to turn all children into mice. With the help of the boy’s pet rat Daisy (Kristin Chenoweth) and his new friend Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), the duo set out to take down the witches and stop their diabolical plan.
The Witches is available for streaming on HBO Max.
While there is something poignant about two Black actors playing roles originally written as white characters, especially considering today’s non-inclusive sociopolitical climate, Zemeckis’ heavy-handed attempt to draw a parallel between Dahl’s lighthearted children’s story and systemic racism (by implying that witches are white women who prey predominantly on poor Black children) falls flat and detracts from the main plot of the movie.
Zemeckis speaks with FabTV about his reimagining of the classic story with a Black protagonist.
The script attempts to tell the story of a Black boy confronting post-Jim Crow era Southern racism while also staying faithful to the original book — a task that proves too much for the nearly two-hour-long movie to accomplish and inevitably results in a storyline that is a jumbled mishmash of well-intentioned but poorly-executed ideas.
At one point in the film, a bellhop at the luxury hotel the boy and his grandma are staying at expresses surprise that a Black woman and child would be able to afford a stay there. While the setting of the movie in 1960s Alabama could have allowed for the writers to consider deeper ideas such as the power imbalance between Black and white people or the effects of Jim Crow-era segregation laws, the film never revisits these topics after this brief exchange, wasting an opportunity to reflect upon the social and race politics of the Southern 1960s.
The screenwriters’ endeavor to bring diversity to this retelling is even more laughable considering how little effort was spent addressing Dahl’s open anti-Semitism, which was prominent in several of his novels. Dahl was known to have accused Jewish people of provoking animosity, and, in an interview with the New Statesman, said, “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”
The original book cover of The Witches, with illustrations by Quentin Blake.
Many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of Dahl’s era portrayed Jewish people as impostors in society — a theme that is directly paralleled in his original The Witches, a cautionary tale about how witches live among us in plain sight. Zemeckis does little to rectify this false narrative and instead carries over Dahl’s discriminatory coding into the movie.
The film also received criticism on social media from para-athletes and the Lucky Fin Project for its antagonization of disabilities — according to Grandma Agatha, witches can be identified by their bald heads, “claws hidden by gloves,” and visible limb disabilities. Both illustrator Quentin Blake’s artwork for the original cover of The Witches and director Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 movie adaptation portrayed the witches as able-bodied, so the deliberate choice to represent the witches in this remake with missing fingers and toes, similar to the limb disability ectrodactyly, insinuates that people with visible disabilities are somehow “witchlike.” While Hathaway eventually apologized in an Instagram post, the blatant lack of oversight from the production team is inexcusable and contrasts with the film’s intent of providing a more inclusive take on the original novel through diverse casting choices.
While it may seem hard to separate The Witches’ successes from its failures, one highlight is its cutting-edge CGI. Cinematographer Don Burgess’ use of prosthetics and visual effects technology brings the witches alive in a unique spin on Dahl’s original vision of witches who could turn from kindly to terrifying in seconds.
However, this triumph unfortunately does not salvage the sinking Titanic that is this film and is at best a short distraction from its poor casting and acting.
Spencer, known for her roles in the award-winning films Hidden Figures and The Help, struggles as Grandma Agatha in The Witches, in part due to the film’s lackluster dialogue. Throughout the movie, she reminisces upon her childhood and previous run-ins with witches in a series of personal anecdotes that contribute little to the trudgingly-slow plot and do a disservice to her character.
Octavia Spencer stars as Grandma Agatha in the remake.
Meanwhile, Hathaway struggles to find a groove in her role as the Grand High Witch. Despite her commendable performances in cult favorite rom-coms The Princess Diaries and The Devil Wears Prada, Hathaway’s casting as The Witches’ antagonist is a questionable choice. Armed solely with a thick German accent and several melodramatic mood swings, she does not instill the sense of fear that is characteristic of the witches in the original novel and the 1990 movie adaptation. At certain points, she merely spits at the camera and screams in a feeble effort to command her coven, coming across as more delusional than scary.
Hathaway addresses the witches at dinner.
Overall, this film is the culmination of half-baked ideas, lukewarm acting, and an overly ambitious plot, representing yet another missed opportunity to remake a beloved children’s book. Rehashing all of its original author’s discriminatory rhetoric without bringing in any of his whimsical magic, The Witches is a disappointing addition to the Dahl franchise and a reminder that some things (or books) are better left as they are.