‘The Witches’ Review: A New Take on the Roald Dahl Story Complete With Halloween-Ready 3D Visuals

The beloved 1983 novel from Roald Dahl, The Witches, has delighted and terrified children for generations. A film version debuted in 1990. However, it was disavowed by the author.

A more faithful adaptation, written by Kenya Barris (Black-ish), Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth), and director Robert Zemeckis, debuted on HBO Max on October 22, 2020. Learn more about the film in Showbiz Cheat Sheet’s review. (Spoilers ahead.)

What are witches?

Octavia Spencer as Grandma and Stanley Tucci as Mr. Stringer in 'The Witches'
Octavia Spencer as Grandma and Stanley Tucci as Mr. Stringer in ‘The Witches’ | Warner Bros. Pictures

The film begins with a slideshow, featuring the narration of Chris Rock. The unseen character explains that witches are not only real but that they despise one thing: Children. He reveals how he came to live with his grandmother in Alabama after his parents’ death in the late 1960s, and she (Octavia Spencer) gave him a pet mouse.

After an encounter with a witch, Grandma and the boy left their home and went to stay at an upscale hotel to escape them. When they arrived, she told him that witches are demons who look like women, only they cover up their most damning traits: Their bald heads, clawed hands and feet, unnaturally large mouths, and scratchy voices.

They turn children into mice

(L-r) The three mice, Bruno, Daisy and Hero Boy in 'The Witches'
(L-r) The three mice, Bruno, Daisy and Hero Boy in ‘The Witches’ | Warner Bros. Pictures

A group of witches (led by the Grand High Witch, played by Anne Hathaway) arrive at the hotel. They convene in a banquet hall, where the boy has been playing, forcing him to hide. The Grand High Witch explains to turn every child in the world into a mouse, using a formula she created. She turns Bruno, another boy at the hotel, into one, and then our main character.

The three mice — including the boy’s pet, revealed to be a girl named Mary (Kristin Chenoweth) who previously endured the same treatment — narrowly escape the witches. They hatch a plan with the grandmother to reverse engineer her formula into a cure, but it doesn’t work. They then come up with a new idea: Use the formula on the witches.

Defeating the witches

Anne Hathaway as Grand High Witch in 'The Witches'
Anne Hathaway as Grand High Witch in ‘The Witches’ | Warner Bros. Pictures

The plan is simple: The mice steal a vial of the formula and dump it into the soup being prepared in the hotel kitchen for the witches banquet dinner. One by one, the witches turn into rats, terrifying the other hotel guests. There’s one issue, though: The Grand High Witch doesn’t eat her soup and follows the mice and the grandmother to her hotel room.

Learning what they’ve done, the Grand High Witch beings to stretch her arms, planning to kill the grandmother. The mice work together to force her to swallow an entire vial, and she turns into a large rat-like creature. Grandma traps her, and they leave with all of the remaining formula and a large trunk of money, as the Grand High Witch’s cat attacks her.

Returning to the grandmother’s home, the mice live out their days happily. Grandma and the boy are happy that their lifespans are now in sync, and they’ll never be without one another. The film ends with a return to the slideshow, as the now elderly mouse instructs a group of children to turn witches into rats.

How the film compares

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The Witches (2020) is more in line with Dahl’s vision. Dahl was reportedly so angry that in the 1990 version, the child became a boy again, that he demanded his name be removed from the credits. The choice to have him stay a mouse is a relatively dark one, but the movie ends on a somewhat positive note.

However, parents of young children should note the film’s categorization as a dark fantasy comedy. The high-quality visual effects used throughout might scare them when it comes to the Grand High Witch’s evil grin and final animal form. But for those with older kids, The Witches could be the perfect fun Halloween film to watch as a family.

The Witches is now streaming on HBO Max.