Adventure comedy Family Fantasy

The Witches (2020)

This is not bewitching for any age group.

As a child, I’ve had my unsettling moments. There are certain scenes in children’s films I didn’t want to see. I was truly terrified by the Cave of Wonders in “Aladdin” and I was scared of the giant spiders and bats in “Jumanji.” Siskel & Ebert did warn viewers that while “Jurassic Park” was entertaining, it was still too intense for small children. And I recall a kid crying when Teri Hatcher became partly bald in “Spy Kids.”

The new version of Roald Dahl’s story of “The Witches,” which is now on HBO Max, has witches who are too scary for small children and a story that’s too obvious for older audiences. This was directed by Robert Zemeckis, who has made some of the best family movies in his career, like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” “Back to the Future,” and “Forrest Gump.” Why did he assume that this would be a movie for the tykes?

You know the story. A little boy loses both his parents, and now lives with his grandmother, who warns him that witches exist. They have no toes, no hair, and no hands. They’re demons, who take human forms, have elongated mouths, claws (looking like they had select fingers cut off), and middle toes, and wear make-up, wigs, and gloves. And they absolutely hate children, and will do anything to eradicate them. They can track them, because to them, kids smell like dog crap. And when a witch finds the main boy, the grandma must take him to a fancy hotel for protection. But that doesn’t prevent them from showing up, and transforming the boy into a mouse. And spoiler alert, to turn the tables on the witches, they must sneak the potion into their soup to turn them into rats.

The story is set in Demopolis, Alabama in 1968, and the cast consists of newcomer Jahzir Kadeem Bruno as the boy named Charlie, Octavia Spencer as his grandma, Anne Hathaway as the Grand High Witch, newcomer Codie-Lei Eastwick as an English boy named Bruno, Kristin Chenoweth as the voice of a pet mouse who was once a human girl, Stanley Tucci as the hotel manager, and Chris Rock narrates the story as the older Charlie.

Also produced by Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuaron, “The Witches” is only decent when the witches are off screen, and we see the grandma connect with the boy and the mice friends me makes in the story. I liked Spencer as the grandma with her sassy attitude and good-natured character, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno making an impressive debut as the boy, and Chenoweth uses her adorable southern accent voice as the pet mouse. The mice effects may not be in Jim Henson form, but at least, they’re much better looking than the humanoid mice in Tom Hooper’s “Cats.” And there’s a mouse roller coaster that looks exhilarating, especially since it has to be told from the perspectives of mice.At least, they have a delightful vibe, compared to everything else.

Before I saw the latest version, I had to see the 1990 version, which was one of Jim Henson’s final projects before his death that year. In that movie, animatronic mice and puppeteering effects were used, while prosthetic make-up was used for the Grand Witch, originally portrayed by Anjelica Huston-both of which were used before CGI effects took over the special effects universe. But in this one, I don’t like Hathaway as the witch with that annoying Russian accent and her special effects, and I don’t like how she has to look frightening towards children. And I forgot to mention that her hands and arms can stretch, so she can rip out people’s hearts.

And the scene that really made me cringe is when the grandma tries to tell Bruno’s parents that his son is a mouse, and the reason he doesn’t talk in that scene is because he says: “my father hates it when I talk with my mouth full.” Obviously, that boy knows nothing about prioritizing, and that’s really exhausting.

You’re better off seeing “Hocus Pocus” or watching “Bewitched” reruns. Or better yet, just see the 1990 film. It’s on Netflix. Try not to get them mixed up.

Rating: 2 out of 4.

Now streaming on HBO Max

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