When author Roald Dahl wrote for children, he made very few concessions to their sensitivities – or those of their parents. If he can take it, they can take it, seemed to be his attitude.
Like all great purveyors of fairy-tales – from Tolkien to the Brothers Grimm - Dahl knew that kids liked as much scary dark as funny light. And he gave them both in The Witches.
The Witches was originally set in 80s Britain. For some reason, American director Robert Zemeckis and his co-producer Guillermo del Toro have decided to set their film in Alabama in the 1960s.
There seem to be two good reasons for this. Our hero – a small boy who’s never named – is voiced in flashback by comedian Chris Rock, reprising his role in the popular TV series Everybody Hates Chris.
And Grandma is played by the always welcome Octavia Spenser, who seems to have a lock on feisty, older women in the 1960’s – in films like The Shape of Water, The Help and Hidden Figures.
Once we establish that witches are on the horizon, all we need to ask is how big they’re going to play it?
That question is soon answered when Anne Hathaway is ushered onstage by Stanley Tucci.
Setting the controls to “Outrageous”, Anne takes off in all directions, aided by Robert Zemeckis’s computerized animation of her hands, feet and a very big mouth.
Hathaway’s contribution – possibly a tribute to Dahl’s Scandinavian forebears – is to play the Grand High Witch with a ridiculously over-the-top Norwegian accent.
The Grand High Witch explains her plan – to turn as many children as she can into mice, to be bumped off by grown-ups afterwards. Nice.
Our hero and his Grandma decide to tackle the witches head-on. It’s unfortunate that, before they can take any practical action, our hero himself is turned into a mouse.
Fortunately, he has company. A new British friend called Bruno was lured into taking the mousifying potion mixed into chocolate. For Dahl you can never have too much chocolate. And it seems Grandma’s pet white mouse Daisy used to be a little girl too.
So now we’ve got three mice and one Grandma against about 40 witches. Well, all I can say is, Look out Witches!
These 2020 Witches are treading in some pretty big footprints. The book was first filmed in 1990 by an unlikely, but remarkably effective, pairing.
The co-directors were The Muppet’s Jim Henson and cult director Nicolas Roeg – better known for adult fare like The Man Who Fell to Earth.
The success of that first film – with children and their parents - was because it took elements of films like The Wizard of Oz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, then made them darker and funnier.
Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo Del Toro have certainly got the technical smarts. But these Witches are never quite as sharp, or as evil, or frankly as new as their predecessors.
Will children – who are, after all, the target audience – be bothered? In the end, the proof of the pudding is who – and how many – are eating it.
However, for what it’s worth, Dahl always seemed to me to belong to a very specific period. And that’s not now.