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‘Roald Dahl’s The Witches’: Too scary for children, too bland for adults

Despite a superstar creative team and a cast led by Oscar winners, the HBO Max fantasy offers minimal magic.

With his grandmother (Octavia Spencer), the boy at the center of “Roald Dahl’s The Witches” (Jahzir Bruno) speaks to a hotel manager (Stanley Tucci).
Warner Bros.

The credentials are unassailable. “The Witches” is based on a book by the legendary Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “James and the Giant Peach”), is directed by the wonderful Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future,” “Forrest Gump,” “The Polar Express”) and features a cast led by Academy Award winners Octavia Spencer and Anne Hathaway and featuring Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth and Stanley Tucci. What could possibly go sideways?

(Clears throat.) Let us count the ways.

Whereas the 1990 adaptation by Nicholas Roeg (featuring the puppetry of Jim Henson) successfully captured the dark fantasy spirit of the source material — though Dahl reportedly was incensed that Roeg changed the ending — this new version is trapped somewhere between scary and funny, between chilling and zany, and never quite finds its identity. The special effects are first-rate and the performances are way over the top yet entertaining, but “The Witches” is far too disturbing for young children and not edgy enough to captivate adults.

Chris Rock, punching up every line as if he’s doing an imitation of Chris Rock, serves as our narrator, telling a fantastical tale from when he was a kid identified only as the Boy (Jahzir Bruno), who comes to live with Grandmother (Octavia Spencer) after his parents are killed in a car crash. “A note about witches,” says the narrator. “They’re as real as a rock in your shoe. The second thing you need to know is, they’re here!”

With songs such as “I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops and “Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding establishing the period piece setting, we’re transported to the late 1960s, as the Boy moves into Grandmother’s tidy home, with the living room furniture covered in plastic and the kitchen a model of Corningware colors. At first, the Boy is mired in a deep depression over the loss of his parents, but eventually Grandma gets him to perk up, with the help of a pet she buys for him: a mouse he dubs Daisy. But darkness is lurking just around the corner in the form of a witch who is waiting for the right moment to snatch up the Boy and turn HIM into a mouse, because that’s what witches do. They hate children and their mission in life is to turn them into mice or chickens. Come on witches, find a better hobby!

The leader of a spell-casting coven (Anne Hathaway, center) has a nefarious plan for the world’s children in “The Witches.”
Warner Bros.

Turns out Grandma is a healer who has a closet filled with magic potions, and she’s been on the lookout to do battle with witches ever since she was a little girl and her best friend Alice was snatched up by a witch and turned into a chicken. “Alice was chicken-ified!” Grandma tells the Boy. Most of “The Witches” takes place in a luxury hotel in Alabama, where The Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway, doing a cartoon Transylvania accent) has convened with her coven (say that three times fast) to conspire to turn all the world’s children into mice. The scenes where the witches doff their wigs and bare their teeth and claws are grotesque and disturbing, at odds with the cutesy, chattering mice-kids who do battle with the witches. And though this version of “The Witches” is faithful to the ending of the book, that ending is odd and dark and filled with gloom.