The 2020 version does not make this capitulation. It keeps its mouse-boy in his furry form. Nevertheless, it conveys a distinctly un-Dahlian mood, adhering to the letter of the page more than its spirit. While the book and the 1990 movie were both set in England and Norway, the new film takes place in Alabama, in 1968. Rock’s narrator is given a name, Charlie, and his younger self is played by child actor Jahzir Bruno. As in its source material, tragedy drives the story forward—his parents are killed in a car accident, and his kindly, eccentric grandmother comes to collect him. In the book and the first film adaptation, the “grandmama” is a cigar-smoking Norwegian kook. In this new version, she’s a vivacious, well-dressed Southern lady, played by Octavia Spencer.
In transposing Dahl’s tale to America and giving it a bright, off-kilter flamboyance, Zemeckis’ The Witches resembles Danny DeVito’s excellent 1996 adaptation of another Dahl novel, Matilda, much more than the dour English-seaside setting of the original novel and the first adaptation. This, again, is not a knock—many of the best Dahl adaptations blossom because they’ve taken stylistic detours, like Wes Andersen’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox or Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach, both of which used stop-motion to bring Dahl’s words to life. The Witches of 2020 does the same, but with live-action, creating a Gulf Shore gothic atmosphere that offers a fresh setting and glittering visuals.
Such flourishes stand in stark contrast to the 1990 adaptation, which presented its missing-girl flashback in a muted color palette, with mournful Norwegians yearning for their lost children. It conjures a menacing, sour world. At one point, the Grand High Witch shoves an infant in a bassinet down a steep hill, just because she can. The witches all have strange stained teeth and quivering, fiendish faces. Huston’s witch morphs from statuesque vamp to grotesque goblin with help from an unwieldy and terrifying prosthesis. The Jim Henson Company provided many of the film’s visuals, which look like Muppets pulled from Satan’s asshole; 30 years later, they’re dated but still powerfully creepy. Although it chose an incongruously gentle ending, the ’90 Witches is still often discussed as one of the most frightening children’s movies of all time for a good reason—it fully captures the breathtaking menace Dahl breathed into his story.
That doesn’t mean Zemeckis’ version is lacking when it comes to the flagrantly grotesque. It’s impossible to top Huston’s transfixing hauteur, but Anne Hathaway chomps the scenery with her own splendid, cartoonish menace. In addition to cowriting the screenplay, Guillermo del Toro is one of the film’s producers, and there are some embellishments to the Grand High Witch’s look that serve as stylistic reminders of his involvement, particularly her expanding claws, which resemble the Pale Man’s grotesque hands in Pan’s Labyrinth, and the horrible, long single toes jutting out from her square feet. Instead of Huston’s outrageously deformed prosthetic mug, Hathaway’s appearance is altered with CGI, her GHW using makeup to obscure the way her smile stretches from ear to ear. In her spookiest moments, Huston’s witch looked like a troll under a bridge—or a Fraggle from Hell—but Hathaway’s incarnation evokes something more akin to the ghoulish Momo meme. It’s a contemporary update, but still genuinely unsettling.