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Film Review

THE WITCHES (2020) review

Neil reviews Robert Zemeckis’ THE WITCHES which is available to rent now on digital platforms in the UK and stream via HBO Max in the US.



The Witches


Reimagining Dahl’s beloved story for a modern audience, Zemeckis’s visually innovative film tells the darkly humorous and heartwarming tale of a young orphaned boy (Bruno) who, in late 1967, goes to live with his loving Grandma (Spencer) in the rural Alabama town of Demopolis. As the boy and his grandmother encounter some deceptively glamorous but thoroughly diabolical witches, she wisely whisks our young hero away to an opulent seaside resort. Regrettably, they arrive at precisely the same time that the world’s Grand High Witch (Hathaway) has gathered her fellow cronies from around the globe—undercover—to carry out her nefarious plans.


If, like me, you were born in the late 80’s then you likely grew up with an intense fear of Anjelica Huston for her portrayal in Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaption of The Witches. The Roald Dahl adaption is at the centre of so many conversations right now when really the narrative should be around the strength of this Robert Zemeckis update.

One of many victims of Coronavirus, The Witches (2020) deserved to have received a big screen unveiling. It shows an understanding of Dahl’s magical world which the original movie shirked to instead focus on the (supposedly) family-friendly horror elements.

Zemecki’s lovingly recreates a colourful, cartoony version of Dalh’s story which feels more akin to Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There’s a heightened sense of reality which accompanies the fantastical narrative in a way which is mutually beneficial. It’s the perfect mix of drama and fantasy to capture those who us with childhood Witches trauma and a new generation of viewers.

The cast is anchored by a beautiful performance by Octavia Spencer. In recent years Spencer has carved a niche for herself in this strong female, familial roles and The Witches suits her perfectly. Her comedic timing, teamed with her maternal instincts make Grandma a great centre-point for the side of good.

Conversely, Anne Hathaway is a surprisingly inspired piece of casting as the Grand High Witch. We discussed this during our Halloween podcast but her accent feels a little all over the place and I unsure if that is a purposeful choice or not. There no shying away from the fact that her accent is hilarious, but given her birthplace is signposted it feels odd that Hathaway chooses to roam around Europe looking for the right voice.

Hathaway brings a physicality to the role which took me entirely by surprise. Zemeckis clearly allowed Hathaway to have fun with the role and she runs with it as far as she can. When she needs to be emotionally imposing she dials the physicality down and becomes tense and threatening. In those larger moments she absolutely owns the screen in the most deliciously evil ways.

Flipping the Hero Boy and Grandma characters to non-white roles feels wonderfully natural to the story. I wasn’t conscious of the change until after the film and going back to reading about the original story. This version of the story neither glorifies or makes issue of the change. Instead, as I said, it’s a perfectly natural facet of the story.

Aesthetically The Witches is a childish fantasy brought to life. It’s colourful, it’s loud and it’s busy. It’s everything that, as a grown up, I remember about reading Roald Dahl stories as a child. The production team has done a wonderful job of seeking out the most surrealist elements of Dahl’s world and bringing them to life in the visual medium.

My biggest complaint is that much of this is done via the use of visual effects rather than practical. For certain elements, such as the witches bring thrown in to the air before turning to rats, it makes sense. The idea of them losing all control would haven’t have been so easily communicated if the actors were on wires. But it does feel like the production leant on VFX as a crutch rather than search for practical ways around their problems.

Ultimately this remake is very different to the 1990 version and that was the right decision. To have stuck closer to Roeg’s original vision would have diluted this film’s impact. Instead the two films can stand together as differing interpretations of the original text which will ultimately serve different types of the audiences.


Roald Dahl’s The Witches is a bewitching fantasy-adventure which lovingly recreates the world of Dahl’s classic for a new generation.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, The Witches stars Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer, Oscar nominee Stanley Tucci, with Kristin Chenoweth and award-winning comedy legend Chris Rock. Newcomer Jahzir Bruno also stars, alongside Codie-Lei Eastick.

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