‘The Witches’ conjures potent message

Anne Hathaway, Josette Simon, and Orla O’Rourke in The Witches / HBO Max

It’s rare when remakes surpass the original film. Usually it’s the high bar that the original set that spurs the idea of updating a movie for fresh eyes. In many cases, it’s difficult for a remake to recapture the initial magic of the original.

The recent spate of Disney live-action remakes are a case in point. The live-action versions of “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” are solid enough movies. I enjoyed them, but did they really improve on the originals?

Obviously, the answer is subjective, but as for me, I’ll probably rewatch the originals several times before I deem it necessary to see either of those remakes again.

That said, the recent HBO Max release of “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” turns that axiom on its head. While neither film rates as a must-watch movie in my book, I enjoyed the new film, directed by Robert Zemeckis from a script by the him, Kenya Barris, and Guillermo del Toro, quite a bit more than the original 1990 adaptation, directed by Nicolas Roeg and starring Angelica Houston as the main witch.

It’s possibly because the new version is a bit more relatable to me being set in the South rather than England, and any movie that casts Octavia Spencer in a role automatically has my attention. She’s become one of my favorite actresses in recent years, always adding some sass and relatability to her roles and in consequence to the entire film. I can’t think of a film in which she’s given a poor or even mediocre performance. Spencer adds a great deal of heart to the story, which could have been a bit cold.

Spencer plays the grandma of our unnamed hero (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) who goes to live with her after his parents are killed in a car accident. After an encounter with a strange lady at the grocery, he soon learns that his Grandma not only believes in witches but that her life has also been plagued by them from an early age. She explains that witches have raspy voices, deformed feet without toes, clawed hands, wide mouths and nostrils, and wear wigs. Once she believes the boy is being stalked by a witch, she decides they should leave home for a while and take refuge in a fancy hotel.

However that hotel just happens to be hosting a gaggle of disguised witches, who are plotting against the children of the world. Their plan is to lace candy with a mouse-maker potion to turn as many children as possible into vermin.

Our young hero is captured by the witches and is forced by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) to take the potion, and he like a few other children at the hotel is transformed into a mouse. With the help of grandma, he and two of his mice friends plan a way to halt the Grand High Witch’s nefarious plot.

The film is no masterpiece, but I had fun watching the escapades, which play out much like a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Again Spencer is absolutely charming in the role and carries the bulk of the movie.

Hathaway plays way over the top as the Grand Witch, using a comically exaggerated European accent that’s borderline annoying. She chews up the scenery in more ways than one, but her line delivery is too silly and exaggerated to be all that scary.

However, Stanley Tucci hits all the right notes as the exasperated hotel manager Mr. Stringer, who’s taxed by a mouse infestation and all sorts of other unusual hijinks perpetrated the mice-children and the undercover witches.

Chris Rock narrates the film using his “old man” voice common to his comedy bits. I thought it was funny, but I can see how others might find it out of place.

While “The Witches” is a kids movie that has its delights, it does not sugar-coat life. Our hero’s parents die tragically, and he is turned into a mouse and never returns to being a human, although he seemingly leads a fun-filled life under Grandma’s care as they travel the world warning whomever will listen about witches.

I have to say I like the movie’s message. Life has its heartbreaks, setbacks, and tragedies that can’t be erased, but it’s our attitude that makes our lives either wonderful, awful, or something in-between. That’s a pretty good message for an otherwise mediocre children’s film.

(PG) 1 hr. 54 min.
Grade: C+

New In Local Movie Theaters

  • Come Play(PG-13) 1 hr. 36 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne
  • My Dad’s Christmas Date(PG) 1 hr. 31 min. (watch trailer)
    Playing at: Malco Razorback, Malco Rogers Towne

* AMC Fiesta Square Cinema has new hours. It’s open Friday through Sunday for the time being.

Classic Corner – Halloween

Compass International

Like the Universal monster films from the 1930s and ’40s, “Halloween” has been copied and ripped off, and homaged so often that the film itself isn’t nearly as chilling and shocking as it was to the original audiences.

There was Halloween and horror movies before director John Carpenter’s classic fright fest made its debut, but prior to the 1978 bow of “Halloween,” neither the holiday nor movies had been quite as scary.

“The Exorcist” (1973) and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974) among others certainly set a high bar for horror films in the 1970s, but it took Carpenter’s low-budget masterpiece to marry the late-October holiday to the horror movie, or to be exact the slasher movie.

How did it take Hollywood so long?

“Halloween” is the grim and brutal tale of how teenage babysitter Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) battles off the nigh unstoppable, plodding menace we know as Michael Myers, who loves nothing more that brutally murdering horny teenagers with a 10-inch butcher knife. There’s some symbolism there that I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

The scariest aspects of the film have in many ways become ubiquitous through overuse by subsequent films in the slasher genre. In some ways, horror fans today might find the movie a bit tame in comparison to the overkill they’ve experienced in other movies through the years.

That said, the movie, written by Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, still works on me from its classic synthesizer score to the first-person vantage point of Michael stalking his victims to through that classic inside-out Captain Kirk mask.

The film is showing on the big screen this weekend at the Skylight Cinema in Bentonville.