The Witches lacks the magic of Roald Dahl's original tale

Anne Hathaway in The Witches. Picture: Daniel Smith
Anne Hathaway in The Witches. Picture: Daniel Smith

Roald Dahl'd The Witches (M, 104 minutes)

2 stars

Roald Dahl's books for children - funny, subversive, macabre, sometimes gross - have long been popular. Adults might have had misgivings, but Dahl knew his readers. It's not surprising many of the books have been adapted into movies, often multiple times.

The Witches is the latest Dahl adaptation, from the 1983 book, and it is, alas, a disappointment. It's styled Roald Dahl's The Witches but screenwriters Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro have taken a few liberties with the tale. Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) also directed: it would have been interesting to see what del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) made of it.

Presumably to appeal to American audiences, the story has been reset in Alabama in the 1960s with African-American leads. Given the time and place, the lack of overt racism or mention of the battle for civil rights is odd and slightly distracting, though there's no apparent segregation among the witches. Their hatred is directed at children.

The story is narrated in retrospect by Chris Rock. "Hero Boy" (oddly, he's not called by any name; he is played by Jahzir Bruno), an orphan, lives with his loving grandmother (Octavia Spencer) who buys him a pet mouse, which he names Daisy.

At a shop one day to buy some nails to build a house for Daisy, the boy is approached by a witch who tries to lure him with a sweet and a snake (an odd combination) but she disappears when Grandma calls for him.

This scene, with its blend of the supernatural and stranger danger, doesn't come off with the threat it should. But our hero is rattled, of course, and tells his grandmother what happened. She informs him that witches are real - one turned her best friend into a chicken - and takes him to stay at a hotel where her cousin works.

As luck would have it, the hotel is hosting the fifth national convention for the Royal (!) Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - which is in fact a gathering of witches - led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) whose plans for kids are cruel indeed.

No prizes for guessing that, soon enough, our hero will encounter the witches.

This film is nowhere near as good as the 1990 version directed by Nicolas Roeg, though the latter made its own changes to the story. Roeg's film used Jim Henson puppetry, practical effects and make-up to achieve its effects. The new film's special effects are surprisingly variable for a big Hollywood movie, especially one with Zemeckis, no stranger to high-tech movies, directing. While a lot of work obviously went into the CGI and much of it is convincing, there are times - especially in scenes where people are levitating or otherwise moving unnaturally - when the trickery seems all too obvious, as though the effects needed a final polish.

Hathaway has sometimes copped flak from "Hathahaters", often unfairly, but there's certainly ammunition for her critics here. She seems to be having way too much fun as the Grand High Witch, with a mittel-European accent reminiscent of Zsa Zsa Gabor or a Donald Trump wife, but comes off as more campy than frightening. Anjelica Huston (with the same initials, coincidentally, as her successor) was much scarier in the 1990 film.

Young Bruno, a relative newcomer, is appealing as the boy (and mouse) and Spencer exudes wisdom and care as his grandmother. Stanley Tucci - who appeared with Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada - is wasted as the hotel's manager, Mr Stringer. He isn't given any memorable dialogue or business. The other adults and children in the story also make little impact.

As a book, The Witches was accused of various crimes including misogyny. This new film has also drawn criticism for the depiction of witches as deformed, with missing fingers and no toes. While there are sensitivities around the issue of representing disability, the film is obviously a fantasy and witches are longstanding villains. Dahl - along with millions of kids over generations - understood the difference between fantasy and reality.

Having seen a preview in an almost empty cinema at Dendy, I wasn't able to gauge any kind of audience reaction to the film - adults or kids. The Witches is rated M, which might put off some people. The "unmasked" witches look grotesque and sport large, Glasgow-grinning, many-toothed mouths as well as those now-notorious deformities, and there are obviously some threatening moments. But I don't think it's any scarier than the version from 30 years ago and that was rated PG. Are kids less robust nowadays? Or is it that adults have less faith in their ability to cope?

Parents can decide what's best for their own children, but Dahl knew what kids liked. The Witches isn't unwatchable, it's just mediocre, lacking rich texture and emotional impact. Watch the earlier film or read the book instead.

This story These witches sorely lack magic first appeared on The Canberra Times.