The Witches brings back to the screen a story that has become a cornerstone of fantasy literature for children by the hand of Roald Dahl, but its ambitions and exuberant aesthetics might not measure up to the original book.
In late 1967, a recently orphaned boy moves in with his grandmother to the rural town of Demopolis, Alabama. When the two come face to face with a glamorous but diabolical group of witches, the grandma decides to escape for a holiday at a seaside resort. Unfortunately, however, when the two get there they realise that the hotel has been chosen by the Grand High Witch as the base for a convention of witches from all over the world – under cover, naturally – to enact their nefarious plans.
Since the moment the trailer for The Witches was released, this movie has immediately captured everyone’s attention with the promise of a dazzling story with a renowned cast.
30 years after a previous film adaptation in 1990 and Roald Dahl‘s death in the same year, enough time seems to have passed to bring back this classic children’s story to the screen and the mouth of viewers. The colourful aesthetics, the simple but heart-warming story, and the Halloween-adjacent release date seemed to promise to bring a little brightness – or at least a rich distraction – to the current state of the world.
As we already mentioned in our New movie alert article a few days ago, the realisation of The Witches has a very particular beginning.
The live-action that we see, in fact, was not the first conception of the project. The starting idea was that the movie would be made with the stop-motion technique and under the watchful eye of one Guillermo del Toro only to then change direction entirely and end up in the hands of Robert Zemeckis as new director, while keeping the original screenplay by del Toro himself.
Furthermore, as opposed to the first movie adaptation, the new The Witches tries to go back to its origins and stay a lot closer to the book it is based on if not for a few changes here and there such as the location, the historical setting, and the protagonist’s ethnicity.
For those who loved the original story and the 1990 movie, finding out about the aforementioned changes might have been a reason to doubt the new movie, but the narrative choices of the new film become a mean to give the story a new point of view.
In the original title, the protagonist is a Norwegian boy accompanied on his adventures by his grandmother. While the new movie keeps the family relation, the background of the protagonist is certainly different. As you might have guessed from the new setting, 1967 Alabama, the story now revolves around an African-American boy and his grandmother.
This change makes the Witches’ nefarious plans even scarier for the protagonist. The witches are shown as affluent women with a glamorous lifestyle even though the Grand High Witch harbours extreme hate for money. At the same time, the protagonist and his grandmother have a modest background that becomes one of the reasons why they’re in particular danger: their disappearance wouldn’t make the news. It is a definite advantage for the witches, whose objective is getting rid of all children. Where to begin if not by eliminating those that come from parts of societies no one really bothers worrying about?
Aside from a story with new meanings that are not, however, really delved into in a detailed manner if not for a few mentions here and there, the new movie definitely tries to strike the viewer with its exuberant aesthetics.
Every scene manages to catch the viewer’s eye. From the lavish dresses of the witches to the rich atmospheres of the hotel, touching also the darkest corners of the anatomy of the witches without shying away even when the dark parts of dark-fantasy might seem a little too much for the young target to which the story is addressed.
The design is always smart. One of the visually strongest impressions is definitely made by an element that was also shown in the trailer and that is the purple dress that Anne Hathaway’s character wears and the belt of which is a golden snake that wraps her sinuous curves.
If you’re like me and you haven’t been able to stop thinking about that dress since the moment you saw the trailer, you’ll be very happy to know that it is just one of the things that will leave you open-mouthed during the movie. The Witches themselves are terrifying and not afraid to be and to make the viewer wince. But it is not an accident at all, the discomfort is entirely on purpose and extremely effective because it exaggerates the antagonists in ways that manage to horrify even adults, who would never expect to have such a reaction.
However, there’s a but. While the effects that revolve around the witches and their magic are quite striking, both visually and technically, there’s a strange deficiency when it comes to the animals of the movie which tend to appear plasticky and lacking credibility and which, on a background of interesting visual effects, distract the viewer from the story.
There isn’t a lot to say when it comes to the cast. In a movie that includes three big names such as Octavia Spencer, Anne Hathaway, and Stanley Tucci, it’s no surprise that they all manage to shine with extraordinary performances.
Anne Hathaway in particular, both thanks to the amount of screentime and the nature of her character, does an excellent job even when she’s expected to go over the top with the theatrics of her demeanour. The result is entertaining, scary, exaggerated, but still astonishing.
The dark of dark-fantasy
As we already mentioned, the visual effects never shy from touching the horrid and in quite the same way, for a children’s story, the one in The Witches is definitely dark.
Like any other story aimed at a very young audience, there’s a feeling of hopefulness that imbues the entire movie, but the ways in which it wins over the darkest moments of the story is definitely surprising and not without its disadvantages. The story is optimistic, the characters never lose their hearts, but all their adventures aren’t without cost and that is what makes The Witches different from other children’s movies.
In conclusion, The Witches measures us with a lot of the expectations of the trailer, especially with its aesthetics, but it remains very obviously a children’s tale.
Aside from the VFX, in fact, The Witches is a very simple story without many depts.
It’s definitely a movie that can be appreciated for the time it lasts and by the audience it was aimed at, but it doesn’t really go beyond that and it definitely won’t change the genre or become the one and true adaptation of the story it was inspired by. I have no doubts that some will still prefer its predecessor and that it won’t exactly be remembered as a super-movie to be rewatched any give chance, but it is enough to momentarily distract from the rest of the world and to be dazzled by its glamour.