‘The Witches’ Film Review: Robert Zemeckis’ Roald Dahl Remake Is Creepy But Superfluous

This is no Tim-Burton-does-Willy-Wonka debacle, but neither does it improve on the 1990 version

We certainly didn’t need another take on Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel “The Witches” after the superlative 1990 screen adaptation from director Nicolas Roeg and screenwriter Allan Scott, but if Robert Zemeckis’ 2020 version doesn’t cast as powerful a spell as its predecessor, neither is it a foul brew.

Collaborating with Kenya Barris on a screenplay originally written by Guillermo del Toro, Zemeckis throws in more good ideas than bad, which is a relief, considering his recent misfires like “Welcome to Marwen” and eye-assaulting CG horrors like “A Christmas Carol” and “The Polar Express.” And in the same way that Angelica Huston grandly (and campily) ruled the roost in Roeg’s film, Anne Hathaway wickedly assumes the throne as queen of her own coven here.

The action unfolds in the American South in the 1960s, with Jahzir Bruno as our unnamed hero, who goes to live with Grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after the death of his parents. She tries to pull him out of his grief with Motown singles — Zemeckis’ needle drops haven’t been this flagrant since “Forrest Gump” — but the child begins to open up after she gives him a pet mouse to take care of.

One day, in a store, a strange woman offers him candy as a snake unfurls from her sleeve; when he tells Grandmother about it, she explains to him that the world is full of witches, who despise children (a clean boy or girl smells “like dog poop” to them) and want to wipe them all out. This information is also shared with us via Chris Rock, as an offscreen narrator telling us the entire film as a flashback.

To elude the local witch, Grandmother and the Boy (as he is listed in the credits) visit one of the South’s grandest resorts, only to discover a full-on convention of witches, led by the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) herself. She has gathered her flock to unleash a diabolical plan to turn children everywhere into mice via a potion delivered by the most delicious chocolate bars. Can this resourceful child and his indefatigable grandmother stop their evil plan?

“The Witches” picks up a lot of steam once the film gets to the resort, since it allows Hathaway to run wild, wearing insanely chic period costumes (designed by Joanna Johnston, “The Man from UNCLE”), unleashing a terrifyingly wide mouth full of pointy teeth (Zemeckis and his team’s acumen for visual effects is on full display), and speaking in a hilarious, nonsense accent that seems to veer from Eastern European to Scandinavian, with what seems like a little Scottish thrown in for good measure.

Those resort scenes also give us Stanley Tucci as a snotty but flappable hotel manager, providing an injection of silliness for the young viewers who find the scary stuff a little more than they can handle. Would that the film had found some funny moments for the comedically capable Spencer, who’s mainly here to be a fierce protector and to provide some Chekhov’s-gun-misdirects regarding Grandmother’s health, and for all the title characters who aren’t played by Hathaway.

The bracketing material and the narration by Rock feel extraneous, and in fact, they raise questions about the plot and the passage of time that don’t quite add up. Dahl purists will be glad to know that, period and geography aside, this is a more faithful adaptation than the 1990 film, but sometimes that fidelity seems excessive – why is young glutton Bruno Jenkins (Codie-Lei Eastick, “Holmes & Watson”), the test case for the witches’ tainted chocolate, still British, for example?

It’s up to individual children, and their parents, to decide the dividing line between “too scary” and “just scary enough,” and this latest “The Witches” traverses that grey area with some fun jolts and creepy visuals. But then so does the previous one, and overall, it’s a better movie: Roeg and collaborator Jim Henson’s sensibilities met in the middle to capture Dahl’s misanthropy and wicked take on human behavior in a way this version can’t quite manage.

Still, given how misbegotten remakes in general and remakes of Roald Dahl properties in particular can be — still getting shivers, and not the good kind, over Johnny Depp’s Anna Wintour-ization of Willy Wonka — this kiddie horror comedy will bring a bracing dollop of creepiness to your Halloween.