Published Dec 22, 2020Here's something you might have forgotten if you haven't read Roald Dahl since childhood: his books are dark as hell. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is about a psychopathic candy-maker who keeps slaves and maims children, The BFG is about an orphan who gets kidnapped and taken to a land of people-eating monsters, and so on.
The Witches is perhaps the most overtly scary of them all, and the new adaptation from director Robert Zemeckis doesn't shy away from the story's horror elements. It's so scary, in fact, that it's hard to imagine who exactly this movie is for, since it's guaranteed to scare the crap out of younger audiences while also being a touch too fantastical for adults.
Within the opening moments of the film, the film's unnamed child protagonist is orphaned after a Christmas car crash kills both of his parents. He moves in with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), who cares for him through his grief and also teaches him about the dark history of witches.
Witches, as narrator Chris Rock tells us, walk among us, hunting children and hiding their distinctive physical characteristics: they wear gloves to hide hands with three clawed fingers, shoes to hide feet with a single clawed toe, and wigs to hide their baldness. Through some very bad luck, grandma and grandchild end up at a hotel where a witch convention is secretly taking place, under the sinister oversight of the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway).
The ableist subtext doesn't play well in 2020. After the Paralympic Games (along with many individuals) criticized the film for its portrayal of limb difference, Warner Bros. issued an apology, as did lead villain Hathaway. Given that Dahl's witches had five fingers (with cat-like claws), audiences have understandably not taken kindly to the filmmakers' artistic licence.
The film's other alterations to the source material work far better. Most crucially, Zemeckis transports the story from England and Norway to 1968 Alabama, where the plot subtly but effectively grapples with racism: the grandmother reveals that witches target disenfranchised members of society, who are more likely to be overlooked when they go missing, and the Black family are gawked at when they show up to stay at a fancy hotel (since 1968 was just a couple of years after the end of racial segregation in the U.S.). Anne Hathaway is another bright spot thanks to her vicious villainy and toothy, lizard-like snarl.
After so much darkness, The Witches aims for lighthearted fun in its final act. It's a little hard to fully buy into the happy ending, given what ultimately happens to the characters — if you've read the book, you know what I'm talking about — but it's an appropriately unsettling ending for an exceptionally dark children's movie. (Warner Bros.)