Moonlight Cinema

THE WITCHES: A New Generation (Moonlight Cinema)

23 March 2021

cw: ableism

There’s nothing quite like discovering Roald Dahl’s world as a child—it’s full of wonder, imagination and the perfect dose of dark comedy. The Witches marks the latest adaptation of a Dahl classic. (We won’t discuss Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we pretend that doesn’t exist.) The Witches (and Matilda) have always been my favourite of Dahl’s creations. No disregard to Charlie or James, there’s just something extra magical about them. 

This adaptation is directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future) and is co-written by Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water). When we arrived, the crowd at the Moonlight Cinema was buzzing. Only a few children and families were in attendance, so there was quite an older audience—presumably fans of the book and ‘90s film. I’ve only attended the cinema once before (to see Moana) and being surrounded by greenery was amazing! Although this film isn’t set in nature, it’s still special to see people gather to watch a beloved tale unfold on screen.

Before I get too into things, let me give a quick rundown of the story for those of you who had a deprived childhood and haven’t read or watched it. An unnamed little boy and his grandmother head to the English seaside for a holiday. The grandmother knows much about witches and tells her grandson how to spot one. Little do they know that the Grand High Witch is conducting a conference at their hotel. Children get turned into mice; there are sweet moments, some stressful bits (stressful in the context of a children’s book) and that’s it! 

The tale first appeared on screen in 1990. I tried to watch this version years ago, but was absolutely scarred! Anjelica Huston is downright terrifying as the Grand High Witch, a role Anne Hathaway has adopted in the current remake. I eventually watched the ‘90s version and look, I won’t lie to you, I was still so uncomfortable throughout. It’s terrifying! (Keep in mind that this is coming from someone who can’t watch even the mildest of horror movies). Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?), the new version hasn’t managed to elicit anything close to this feeling. 

I have actively followed Anne Hathaway’s progression from The Princess Diaries and Ella Enchanted (two absolute classics!!!) to The Devil Wears Prada (heads up about the incredible cast reunion with Stanley Tucci in The Witches) and then her appearance in more serious and heart-breaking roles—Fantine anyone? She fully immerses herself in every part she takes and the Grand High Witch is no exception. So when I heard that she would be starring with Octavia Spencer, I just about exploded. I cannot express how much I adore Octavia. She is sassy, smart and as an aside, Minny from The Help is one of my all-time favourite fictional characters. I’ve never looked at pie the same way. 

Octavia emits such warmth as the grandmother—she’s caring, unashamedly courageous and overall a damn excellent woman! Her friendship with her grandson, played by actor Jahzir Bruno, is the main reason to watch the film. (While the grandson remains unnamed in Dahl’s story, he is credited as ‘Hero Boy’ in the film so I’ll just refer to him as that). The love they share is precious and made me teary at times. 

The witches are definitely aimed at a younger audience than the ‘90s film. They aren’t crazed, or manic as in the original film. They’re calm and almost cultish—not sure which is worse. The ‘reveal’ of the witches’ true selves is barely notable. They simply take off their wigs and gloves, and showcase some pointy fingers and razor blade teeth. There is no taking off a full MASK to reveal a boiled, wrinkly body and disproportionate features as Huston did. Granted, with the use of CGI, the witches’ arms can extend to astonishing lengths, so I guess that is a bit scary. This more normal and controlled approach could perhaps be to appeal to a younger audience, but in turn potentially isolates older viewers who might want a more shocking portrayal of the witches.

Before watching, I had read about the public backlash over the “use of distinct physical impairments in [the witches’] hands [being] offensive to those with limb differences”. British Paralympic swimmer Amy Marren tweeted about the film and shared her disapproval with disabilities being portrayed as monstrous. Alongside her tweet was an illustration from the novel where a witch is drawn with no fingers missing. 

Director Robert Zemeckis and the film’s cast and crew have since profusely apologised for any hurt they have caused, explaining that they were trying to create their own vision for the witches’ appearances. A Warner Bros statement read that when “adapting the original story, [they] worked with designers and artists to come up with a new interpretation of the cat-like claws that are described in the book”. They emphasised that “it was never the intention for viewers to feel that the fantastical, non-human creatures were meant to represent them”. This incident will hopefully prompt creatives to undertake a more inclusive approach in the future when designing characters’ physicalities. 

The film is certainly visually pleasing, the terrific ‘60s costume design by Joanna Johnston is filled with vibrant colours and overall gorgeous dresses! The lighting is a standout and at one particular moment, a flash of lightning illuminates a room, perfectly timed with stories being told about the witches. The racial political issues of the 1960s are briefly explored in the film but not as extensively as they could’ve been. A comment here and there was provided but a further exploration of the social context at the time would’ve helped further orient viewers. 

The most striking difference between the ‘90s film and this is that the ending of this version stays true to Dahl’s vision. Dahl remarked how the ‘90s film “missed the whole point of the book” and that he wanted “his name off this thing”. It’s safe to say that the ending of this film would have pleased him. It’s a beautiful conclusion and is a pure testament to Dahl, his vision, and the world he created. 

Yes, the film doesn’t venture as far into the children’s ‘horror’ genre as they should’ve and as a result there is definitely the feeling that something is missing. But the faithful ending and relationship between Hero and his grandmother are sweet and standout moments which manage to redeem this as an acceptable adaptation.

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