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'The Witches' Review: A campy delight for a new generation

It's not the 90s film, and by making that decision 'The Witches' (2020) made itself a blast.

Anne Hathaway and company in The Witches.
(Image: © Warner Brothers)

Our Verdict

'The Witches' (2020) gives a fresh, campy spin on a classic tale. It's its own thing while still paying homage, and it shines by making that decision.

For

  • 🧙🏻‍♀️Hathaway and Spencer are having a delightful time.
  • 🧙🏻‍♀️A re-telling worthy of a new generation.
  • 🧙🏻‍♀️Really, really fun!
  • 🧙🏻‍♀️Doesn't find itself beholden to the 90s film. This isn't about nostalgia.

Against

  • 🧙🏻‍♀️Relies too heavily on CGI.
  • 🧙🏻‍♀️The children are mostly just there. They're sweet! But this is Spencer and Hathaway's movie.

The Witches (1990) traumatized a whole generation. Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch gave many of us nightmares for weeks, while still taking place in a magical Roald Dahl world. I’m pleased to report that The Witches (2020) will do the same for a new generation of children who unwittingly enter Mr. Stringer’s grand hotel. More importantly, this new adaptation takes on a life of its own, differentiating itself from both the book and the 90s film in remarkably fun - and occasionally softer - ways.

Most know the gist of the story by now: The Boy (Jahzir Bruno) tragically loses his parents and moves in with his loving Grandmother (Octavia Spencer). The bond between these two is illustrated quickly and with care, with Spencer and young Bruno making a great pair. It’s not long into the Boy’s new life that he finds himself running afoul of a witch – and one that curses his Grandmother to boot. But Grandmother knows all about the witches, so she whisks the two of them to a grand hotel far away from any of the mean old hags. Or so she thinks. As it happens, she’s actually brought them right to the place where the American coven will be meeting, complete with the Grand High Witch herself. It’s all hijinks and mouse traps after that.

Something some viewers may struggle with is that this new adaptation isn’t for the generation that was scared witless back in the 90s. It is for a whole new group of kids to be terrified and delighted by, and that’s what makes it so good. It’s softer in some ways, while still introducing new terrifying aspects to the children-hating witches. Keep your peepers open for a certain arm-related scene. None of this is to say that us 30-somethings won’t love it. We just have to bear in mind that it wasn’t made with us or our nostalgia in mind.

What it does have in mind is some serious, unfiltered camp. Anne Hathaway absolutely chews up the role of the Grand High Witch. Every second she is on screen is utterly absurd and it ends up being picture perfect for this version of the character. She’s weird, scream-y, and just downright ridiculous from time to time while still convincing you that she is absolutely about to murder every child she possibly can. On the flip side, Octavia Spencer nails the role of Grandmother. She’s warm and kind, but she will still whip your behind without pause if you have it coming to you. Her matriarchal role plays an important part against the Grand High Witch, and getting to see her have her moment is every bit worth the wait.

One thing many critics acknowledged from the jump was the shift from practical effects (1990) to all CGI (2020). While all of the effects are done well enough, this ends up being a reasonable complaint. There are plenty of moments where the digital effects simply cannot be avoided – the aforementioned arm scare I mentioned wouldn’t be possible without them, and the mice would not have played as well – but there are other moments where the practical should have come into play more and they simply didn’t. All the same, nothing looks ostensibly bad. At least not today. That’s the price you often pay with CGI – an understanding that a decade from now it won’t hold the way it does today. Meanwhile, The Witches (1990) will still haunt you thirty years later because of its effects decisions.

The Witches (2020) is warm and weird. Even better, it leans into its weird with everything it has. Those oddities coupled with an all-star pairing like Hathaway and Spencer really takes things to the next level. There weren’t many moments where I wasn’t grinning like a fool while watching. A whole new generation of unsuspecting children are going to have an absolutely blast and be traumatized in brand new ways. That’s heartwarming!

The Witches will be available on HBO Max on October 22nd, 2020.