THE WITCHES Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s on the side of the witches.
Roald Dahl is one of the world’s favourite children’s authors.

Part of that has always been down to his sense of talking to children in the sort of language they understand – full of honesty, especially about unpleasant, or frightening, or horrible things and people.

There’s undoubtedly something to that – the best old fairytales had the same element to them (You wanna talk about the Grimm fairytales where ugly sisters had their eyes pecked out by birds?). But there’s also something about Roald Dahl that, unless you’re very, very careful, can overbalance the honesty and turn into more straightforward human darkness, bordering on horror.

As a writer, it’s also on record that Dahl (who was also a prolific writer of macabre, dark and twisted short stories for adults, and responsible for much of the tone of British TV series, Tales of the Unexpected) couldn’t stand any of the film adaptations of his work made while he was alive.

It’s impossible to say what he would have thought of the latest version of The Witches. Probably he would have thought it altogether too sweet in places, with its gorgeous Motown soundtrack (one reason to sit through the movie all on its own). But there are probably more elements of fundamental Dahl philosophy in this movie than in many of the others.

Perversely, that might be the film’s biggest problem.

With Chris Rock providing a voice-over intro to the piece, the set-up is straightforward.

Witches are real. They’re all women. And…then Dahl (and Rock) goes into a run-down of all the ways you can spot a witch. Essentially, women in positions of power – witches. They all want to squish you if you’re a child, because they hate children. It’s their life’s ambition to squish children.

Wait a goddamned minute there. Right up front, the idea that women in positions of authority are pure evil and want to kill children is troublesome. If you want to read that as misogyny aimed at career women, I certainly wouldn’t stop you.

It gets worse than that, but we’ll get there in a minute. For now, just let Dahl’s childhood world sink into your bones. Women+authority=eeeeevil. Child-squishing eeeeevil.

Sure, technically, this is an old fairytale trope too – stepmothers? Evil. Stepsisters? Evil. Queens, generally? Eeeeevil. Where it gets tricky is that the world of Dahl’s witches, while still pretty far removed from our own (the book was published in 1983, and this iteration takes us further back, to the Sixties), is still recognisably ‘our world’ of telephones, TVs, big hotels and organizations for children’s welfare, rather than, say, a world far enough removed to be mystical, full of spinning wheels, woodcutters, freelance wolves and princes determined to cop off with the first somnambulist whose path they cross.

So the message of the first few minutes of the movie is that in this world, our world, women in positions of authority – mostly evil.

Not all of them, though. Because after those first few minutes of priming about witches, we meet Hero Boy – no, really, that’s as much of a name as he ever gets. The Chris Rock voice-over is Hero when he’s older, but the younger version, played by Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, is made an orphan by a car accident and goes to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). It takes a while for him to get past his grief for his parents, and along the way, he gets a pet mouse, who he names Daisy.

So far, so ordinary.

Then…well, then things start going witchtastic, for no plot-identified reason. Young Hero has an encounter with a witch in a hardware store (played in a pleasing moment of casting bingo by Josette Simon) and Olivia Spencer is revealed to have something of the ‘white witch’ (Oh, we’re begging, let’s not even go there) or the voodoo priestess about her (a notable switch from Dahl’s original, where Grandma was Norwegian). After consulting some occult sources of her own, Grandma uproots young Hero and takes him to a grand hotel to escape the local witch.

What neither of them realise at the time is that the world conference of evil, child-squishing witches is about to take place riiiight there in that hotel. Frying pan. Fire. Etc.

This is when we get an extra dollop of Dahl and his relative misogyny coming through. Again, it’s misogyny in a grand fairytale tradition – ugly witches are a staple of the genre, after all – but the list of characteristics by which Grandma tells Hero he can spot a witch could, in the wrong young minds, provoke fear of women in wigs, fear of women with long gloves, and even fear of women in pointy shoes. All of these are signs of witchery, we’re told, because witches have squared-off feet, claws instead of hands, and no hair. The degree of ‘othering’ at work here is pretty heavy, and the extent to which it follows old fairytale traditions of fearing the different is impressive on the one claw and disappointing on the other.

But, sticking with the plot – evil witches in disguise as benefactresses are plotting to set up sweet shops all over the world, and poison their candy with a potion to turn all the world’s children into mice.

As ya do.

Hero runs into an always-eating fat kid stereotype (he loved an always-eating fat kid stereotype, did Dahl. Augustus Gloop, anyone?), and Bruno Jenkins (Codei-Lei Eastick) is the first victim of the great mouse plan.

Sadly, far from living up to his name and being the hero of the piece, Hero is almost immediately caught and mousified too. Daisy to the rescue – Kristen Chenoweth voicing the female mouse, who it turns out used to be a girl called Mary.

Between the three of them, and with help from Grandma, they must somehow foil the plot of the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) and her coven of child-squishers.

There’s some good, believable stuff along the way to the finale – including the absolute failure of one plan – but there are also quite a few shortcuts taken so that Hathaway is relatively quickly left to carry the can for all the evil witches in the world, but never really given the dialogue with which to do it.

What you end up with then is a mystical showdown – Grandma and her three mice versus the Grand High Witch and her wretched cat.

The way this stand-off is arranged is both fairly simplistic and yet quite an elegant piece of Mousetrap-like convolution, getting all the right elements in place at the right moment to get the showdown to go the right way.

The conclusion too is distinctly odd – there are no ‘happy endings’ in the traditional sense here, and yet all the heroes end up happier together than any of them could have been alone. The message seems to be that losing one’s parents is the gateway to a better life through mousy living. And a closing montage takes us from the end of the ‘action’ portion of the plot, with young Hero having helped his Grandma foil the plot of the evil witches, and the end of the story as such, with the two of them recruiting young children all over the world to give the witches in their areas a dose of their own mousifying medicine.

Is The Witches a good movie?

On balance, probably not.

It has one shining performance in it – Octavia Spencer acts her socks off in this movie, while still feeling entirely natural. Anne Hathaway is giving it all she’s got on the witch-queen front too, but sadly, because the CGi is determined to consistently portray her with all the strange identifying details of a witch – weird toes, claws for hands, and what might be thought of as Cheshire Cat Mouth (Or Fright Night Mouth if you’re from an older generation), it ends up taking over her performance, leaving her little else to do but cackle like the Wicked Witch of the Fjords and tell everybody they’re stupid, stupid, stupid.

Stanley Tucci’s in the movie too, as the maitre d’ of the hotel where the action takes place, but for once, the impeccable Tucci seems to underplay his role to the point of almost-invisibility. That’s a shame, because he remains the impeccable Tucci – he’s just, in this movie, impeccably ordinary.

Relative shortcuts that mean most of the witches are rendered no threat before they even really get going feel like moves in the same direction – taking talent, and brushing it aside.

So what remains is a movie that’s mostly about animated mice and their battle to save the world’s children from a fairly Dahl-faithful stereotype of women who hate children. Bottom line, the movie feels slight, unbalanced, and the Dahl-faithful elements it uses to address that balance issue are true to the Dahl original – but that doesn’t make it especially watchable or entertaining.

Ultimately, The Witches is an oddish fairytale to begin with, and one that in 2021 feels slim, simplistic, and off-kilter with an increasingly complex world.

But a movie full of Octavia Spencer and a chunk of kickass Motown’s never going to be all bad. Right?

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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