Let’s talk about The Witches.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it! It has been over three months since I last wrote a review. Since the time I ripped into Mulan for having the personality of a Lidl own brand mop, a lot has happened. We are about to enter our third lockdown thanks to Covid-19, Joe Biden is the President-Elect and some poor schmucks thought I was a good person to hire. If they ever read this, they’ll probably regret it.

But let’s get back to talking about the few movies that have been released, even if they are on VOD instead of in the cinemas like they deserve to be. And here we have another film that the studio just decided to dump out there instead of waiting for cinemas to be properly reopened. Here we have an adaptation of a Roal Dahl classic. Adapting Roald Dahl’s material has always been tricky. There have been plenty of good ones from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda and Fantastic Mr. Fox. But then there are the not so good ones like The BFG, James and the Giant Peach and Charle and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl’s material is incredibly unique in how childishly dark it is and that’s a tricky proposition for a filmmaker who has to bring those devilish words to life.

This is the second attempt to make The Witches on screen. I haven’t seen the original, released in 1990, but I’m in good company because it made £22.37, a button and a half-eaten Freddo bar at the box office. So it makes sense to give it a go for a modern audience. In this adaptation, a boy and his grandmother run away to a hotel in order to escape a witch on their trail. Inadvertently though, the hotel is hosting a convention for witches with the Grand High Witch, played by Anne Hathaway, announcing she has a plan to turn all the children in the world into mice.

And I fear they have blundered from the off because the lead child actor is not a great one. I always hate when this happens because I then have to write very mean words about how a child wasn’t able to do their job and I feel like a bully. Especially when poor acting can often be down to the direction rather than their talent. But Jahzir Kadeem Bruno struggles to emote and be engaging in that role which means the film struggles to get going. Weirdly, things get a lot better when the boy is turned into a mouse. There’s finally some life in his voice and it feels like he cares about what’s going on around him. For a while, I thought they might have got another voice actor in for this part but no, it’s the same lad. Perhaps this was a directional choice as it does fit with some story beats but if that is the case, what they were going for in the first part of the movie doesn’t work and gives us a bad image of this young actor.

The CGI really lets the film down as well. For the bulk of the film, we are following three mice around. So it would have been nice to make them look good. I had to play Ratatouille on the Wii recently, the reason for this is short but very boring, and I think the motion-controlled Remy looks better than these 2020 rodents. They do have some decent facial animation which gives them a bit of character, but the effects look so dated. It’s the same for the rest of the CGI animals as well with the cat walking down Anne Hathaway’s arm being particularly bad. I’d sooner believe that Garfield had shown up and was moonwalking up and down her arm than believe that cat was actually there. On that note, it’s really damning that CGI animals haven’t improved that much since that only good for a Zombieland joke movie.

We do have some fun though. The first part of the film is dragged along by a very game Octavia Spencer. With this and Ma, it’s been nice to see her do more roles which allow her to be a bit broader as it’s obvious she enjoys doing them. Yes she’s great in dramas and deserves all the awards she has got so far in her career but wow she is fun when given this sort of material. She keeps the film moving at a nippy pace when it’s just her and the young boy, who as mentioned is not that great. Then Anne Hathaway shows up and that’s even more fun. Hathaway puts on an accent that is aiming for the top spot on the BuzzFeed list of stupidest accents in film countdown and I dare any one of their writers not to put her top. It alongside the creepy but well-done prosthetics really make this a daft but hilarious performance that will hopefully keep some kids awake at night. It would not be a Roald Dahl adaptation if it didn’t have the potential to put a child in therapy and that extended mouth Hathaway sports will certainly do that. It’s also the one time the bad CGI works in the film’s favour.

The problem with The Witches is that it lacks peril and doesn’t feel fully finished. Even though the witches successfully turn the lead into a mouse, it never really feels like they are going to win. Everything our heroes try seems to work very easily and because the bulk of the plot takes place in the second half, their plans work easily and quickly. There are also some plot threads which are never really developed such as this feud between the Grandmother and the Grand High Witch which apparently goes back centuries but with the lack of heat between Spencer and Hathaway you’d think all that happened was that one of them cut in front of the other in traffic. The Grandmother has a bad cough throughout the entirety of the film which in the end has nothing to do with the plot.

The Witches is a missed opportunity. We lack kids' films which can terrify them. You could argue that kids don’t need that with real-life being terrifying enough at the moment but I’d argue that’s why we need these sorts of films as it prepares for them for when life is scary. But while this may work to scare the kids, it doesn’t have much else to offer. The plot is oddly paced which makes the witches way too easy to beat, which definitely makes them a lot less scary, and the lead actor is not engaging until he is a mouse and then when he is a mouse he looks less realistic than a ten-year-old Wii game. It’s a real shame as the adult actors give it their all but that can’t save a threadbare script that probably should have been rewritten a few times. Not bad enough to send to Salem, but it’s nothing bewitching.

Former Head of Movies for Screen Critics. Film Reviews now hosted on Medium.