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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Witches is director Robert Zemeckis' spooky, creepy adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic 1983 children's book, which was previously made into a movie in 1990. This version is set in 1960s Alabama; like the others, it chronicles how a boy (Jahzir Bruno) and his grandma (Octavia Spencer) encounter a coven of kid-hating witches who plan to transform the world's children into mice. It's a dark but comic fantasy with plenty of peril, and kids are indeed turned into rodents. The witches' appearance and demeanor are pretty scary: They have claws, no toes, sores on their scalps, and unnaturally wide, gash-like mouths (reminiscent of Venom and the Joker) with razor-sharp teeth. The way in which their limbs are depicted (especially their webbed hands) has drawn criticism from disability advocates for making limb differences seem unnatural and frightening. The head witch (Anne Hathaway) kills a fellow witch for insubordination and tries her hardest to exterminate the main characters. An early scene reveals that the boy's parents died in a car accident (the camera shows only the boy, who survived). The movie, which is considerably more diverse than other movies based on Dahl's work, encourages communication, courage, and teamwork and affirms the importance of trusted adults in kids' lives.
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What's the story?
THE WITCHES opens with an unseen narrator (Chris Rock) explaining to a classroom of children that witches are real, live among us, and hate children. He goes on to tell the story of how he discovered this first-hand as a boy. In a flashback, he explains how, in late 1968, when he was 8 (and played by Jahzir Bruno), his parents died in a car accident. He goes to live with his maternal grandma (Octavia Spencer) in a small town in Alabama. While he's at a local market, an elegantly dressed woman with a snake hisses and asks him whether he wants a piece of candy, scaring him. He tells his grandma, who has developed a bad cough, and she reveals that it wasn't a woman he saw, but a witch. Witches, she explains, always wear gloves, wigs, hats, and makeup to disguise their clawed hands, bald heads, and elongated mouths, among other identifying features. Alarmed, grandmother and grandson decide to vacation at a fancy hotel. Soon after arriving at their destination, the boy discovers that the group of female guests allegedly there for a child-welfare conference are in fact a coven of witches. They're led by the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway), who has a master plan to use a potion to transform all children into mice -- and then exterminate them.
Is it any good?
This campy, creepy, fun Dahl adaptation will entertain fans of the author's quirkily dark tales about kids in peril who get away from terrible adults (in this case, kid-hating demons). Director Robert Zemeckis still knows how to put together a slick, family-friendly adventure full of elaborate makeup and visual effects, and The Witches doesn't disappoint. It's perfect for a Halloween movie night. Parents will particularly enjoy seeing Hathaway reunite with her Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci, who plays the hotel's rule-following manager, Mr. Stringer. They both look like they're having a grand time, especially Hathaway, who chews the scenery as the over-the-top Grand High Witch.
Spencer and Bruno have a lovely rapport as a grandma who knows a thing or two about witches and her kind and brave orphaned grandson. Bruno keeps up with the Oscar-winning actress, and he manages to keep his character's emotional range even in voice form (spoiler alert: he's turned into a mouse). The soundtrack is fantastic, featuring a mix of Motown hits and contemporary tracks, including The Four Tops' "Reach Out I'll Be There," Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing," and Samantha Jade's cover of "We Are Family." It's worth noting that although the movie is set in the Jim Crow-era Deep South, it features a Black grandmother and grandson staying at a hotel that would surely have been segregated at the time. Fantasy movies have no reason not to be diverse, even when set in the past. With The Witches, Zemeckis has conjured old-school magic that should be a sweet, spooky treat for families.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about The Witches and other movies based on Roald Dahl's books. If you've already read the book, what did you think of the movie? If not, do you want to read it now? What makes for a "good" adaptation? Did this one meet your expectations?
Discuss the violence in the movie. Is it necessary to the story? Many adults in Dahl's books are terrible to kids; how is Grandma different?
How does this movie compare, representation-wise, to other adaptations of Dahl's books? Why is it important to see diverse representations in the media?
Disability advocates have spoken up about the way the witches' limbs are depicted. How can filmmakers/artists ensure that they're not promoting harmful ideas about underrepresented groups?
- On DVD or streaming: October 22, 2020
- Cast: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Chris Rock, Jahzir Bruno
- Director: Robert Zemeckis
- Studio: HBO Max
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Magic and Fantasy, Book Characters
- Character strengths: Communication, Courage, Teamwork
- Run time: 106 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: scary images/moments, language and thematic elements
- Last updated: March 19, 2021
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