The Witches movie review: Octavia Spencer is mostly what's watchable in this creepy, potentially scarring children's film

Robert Zemeckis' reimagination of The Witches touches every note of creepy there is, trying hard to be terrifying, but settles in the confusing zone of being just disturbing.

Kusumita Das April 11, 2021 11:14:59 IST

2/5

On paper, Robert Zemeckis The Witches could well be an audacious re-imagination of Roald Dahl’s wicked children’s story, on American soil. The director takes the film twenty years behind Dahl’s early 1980s story, and makes the retelling a consciously inclusive one, with two main African American characters, around whom the story revolves – a little boy and his grandma. After “Hero Boy” - as he is referred to in the closing credits - loses his parents to a car crash, his sagely grandma (Octavia Spencer) takes him in. Chris Rock’s buoyant narration draws us into a mid-century American home in Alabama, of warm cakes and vintage radios and pastel interiors. Grandma pulls every trick out of her hat to cheer up her grieving grandson (Jahzir Bruno). In the first ten minutes, through the loving bond between these two, Zemeckis creates an illusion of a world so safe and snug, that you know danger is lurking; the bubble of bliss is about to burst.

And so it does, when Hero Boy encounters his first witch in the neighbourhood grocery store, who tries to lure him with chocolate. And in just one scene, the film instantly goes from cosy to creepy. While the little boy is terrified, even though he manages to flee, for his grandma, witches are old news. She soon springs to action and whisks her grandson away to a swanky seaside retreat – the Grand Orleans Imperial Seaside Hotel. How someone like her, who lives comfortably but is still of modest means, can afford this opulence isn’t explained. But her plan comes to naught when it turns out that those they are running from, are also guests at the same hotel.

A coven of witches from around the world have gathered for an undercover witches convention to plan a modus operandi to trick, trap and kill children. It’s all the brainchild of the Grand High Witch played by Anne Hathaway. She gathers her troop in the grand ballroom where they come in with coiffed wigs, and silk gloves and pointy heels, every aspect of fashion meant to hide their grotesque reality of bruised bald heads and club feet and clawed hands.

While the central theme of a children’s film being about killing children is sinister enough, the treatment does nothing to soften the blow.
Anne’s Grand High Witch touches every note of creepy there is, trying hard to be terrifying, but settling in the confusing zone of being just disturbing. And this, I mean for adults. There are scenes in the film that could potentially be quite scarring for children, no matter how resilient we think they are. The witches, especially Anne’s Grand High Witch, with her prosthetics-enhanced features and a cavernous crooked mouth, with a scar reminiscent of Joker is not the kind of candy flavoured ‘scary’ you’d want in a children’s film. She also speaks in a hodgepodge of an accent that goes from Eastern European to Russian to even Nordic, making the character more comical than convincing - “No gorrrlic in my soup!”

The Witches movie review Octavia Spencer is mostly whats watchable in this creepy potentially scarring childrens film

Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci in a still from The Witches

Bringing some relief from the unpleasant and bordering-on-boring shrieks and squeals of the witches, are the three children-turned-mice, who with help from grandma, hatch an ambitious plan to take down the witches. While the CGI leaves much to be desired, these three little mice do make a cutesy, gutsy and watchable trio. One character we’d have wanted to see more of is Stanley Tucci’s meddlesome manager. But even in his limited screen time, his comic timing doesn’t miss a beat. There is only one British character in the film, Hero Boy’s chubby friend Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), the only import from Dahl’s original universe. But since he turns into a mouse very early on, the only English imprint that’s left is his accent.

It’s Octavia Spencer’s grandma which constitutes a large part of what is watchable in The Witches.

Although appearing a little too young for the part, her sagely, full of wisdom presence adds a much-needed softness to this creepy story. The mid-century American suburbs with Spencer in it will remind you of Minnie from The Help, even though Spencer never wears a pinafore uniform here. In fact, in this film, she is all about bold, floral prints and patterns, a complete foil to Anne’s over-the-top sartorial glamour. Costume designer Joanna Johnston has played with dominant styles of the 60s to draw up the witches and the humans. For the witches, the dramatic costumes are their disguise – the gloves and heels and wigs all a front meant to trap. For Anne’s character especially, the 60s supermodel style clothes are an exaggerated expression of her vanity, while grandma’s friendly floral prints evoke a feeling of safe refuge.

The screenplay by Zemeckis, Barris and del Toro is rushed and the buildup to the crescendo isn’t convincing enough. Chris Rock’s voice sounds too cheerful for someone telling a story of dead parents and child-killers. Given the sheer weight of auteurs associated with the film – producers Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro, writers Zemeckis and Kenya Barris of Black-ish fame, not to mention a superlative cast, the film remains a weak effort. And while there are positive messages of bravery, and family love and healthy body image, they aren’t enough to dismiss the unpleasant visuals of demonic claws and cavernous mouths, that could well be nightmare-inducing for children.

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Witches is available to watch on BookMyShow Stream.

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