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Review: ‘The Witches’ is high-gloss, but still amusing (Includes first-hand account)

While witches flying on broomsticks are an iconic symbol of Halloween, one has to wonder what they do for the other 364 days a year. Also, if they look as hideous as the holiday’s decorations suggest, how do they go unnoticed for all that time? In 1983, Roald Dahl wrote a story about a heinous group of witches with a sinister plan and an alternative family who will do everything in their power to stop them. The book was first adapted in 1990 with the help of Jim Henson, and now director Robert Zemeckis — who is no stranger to special effects-heavy pictures — has taken a turn. Roald Dahl’s The Witches is a relatively faithful adaptation of Dahl’s tale, though it’s been transported to 1968 Alabama.

After his parents die in a car accident, a young boy (voice of Chris Rock) goes to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer). She does everything she can to cure his depression, including giving him a pet mouse that he trains to do a variety of tricks. However, when he has a run-in with a witch at a local store, her prime concern becomes keeping him safe from the child-hater. So the pair go to an exclusive hotel for a brief stay… which is also unknowingly hosting the annual witches’ convention led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway). The meeting unveils their ambitious plan to turn the world’s children into mice — a fate that befalls the boy and his hungry new friend, Bruno. Having fortunately maintained his ability to think and speak like a human, the boy conspires with his grandmother to give the witches a taste of their own medicine.

Co-written by Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro, the story is now deeply rooted in the American South, including vague, family-friendly reminders of recent racial segregation. For instance, the hotel’s black staff is shocked and excited to see a black woman checking into the primarily white establishment… though there are no blatant scenes of racism that such an event would’ve inevitably inspired. The inclusion of different races in the witches’ council also underplays the notion of race in the picture, keeping focus on the main story.

One of the key differences between this film and the first adaptation is the special effects. Under the guidance of Henson, most (if not all) the original effects were practical, including mouse puppets and extensive prosthetics. The new movie relies on CGI, creating digital mice and giving the Grand High Witch more frightening powers, such as elongating fingers, a gruesomely extended smile and the ability to float. This increases the film’s whimsy, but lessens its connection to reality.

Rock’s narration is lively and engaging, while Kristin Chenoweth provides the voice of his clever white mouse friend. Spencer is genuine as the strong, caring matron who knows how to handle herself in almost any situation, and Stanley Tucci plays the hotel’s amusing and diligent manager. Finally, Hathaway’s portrayal of the head witch is animated (literally and figuratively) as she embraces the opportunity to be evil and exaggerated.

As the whimsy comes in different forms in this picture, it distinctly separates itself from the earlier adaptation; thus, fans of the first will find they’re still able to enjoy this version in spite of the difference noted above.

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer and Stanley Tucci

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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