Octavia Spencer is delightful as the grandmother in “The Witches.” (Courtesy HBO Max)

Octavia Spencer is delightful as the grandmother in “The Witches.” (Courtesy HBO Max)

‘The Witches’ is slight, bright Halloween entertainment

New take on Roald Dahl novel not quite comparable to Roeg’s version

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The number of decent Halloween entertainments available for young viewers can perhaps be counted on two hands.

If you’ve seen “Hocus Pocus” one too many times and “Hubie Halloween” is just a little too dumb, then Robert Zemeckis’ “The Witches” — based on the classic Roald Dahl novel — offers slick, bright fun, and just on the edge of spooky. It debuted Oct. 23 on HBO Max.

Anne Hathaway won the coveted role as the Grand High Witch, the movie’s head villain, after nearly every other “A” list actress in Hollywood tried for it. She has a grand time with a crazy Bond-baddie accent, whisper-to-scream explosions of malevolence, and some creepy FX-powered enhancements.

The unmistakable voice of Chris Rock also helps provide some background information. But the main characters are actually a heroic boy (Jahzir Bruno), who loses his parents in a car crash and goes to live with his grandmother (Octavia Spencer).

Spencer is second-billed after Hathaway, but she matches the high-powered antagonist with her warmth and kindness and spunk. She’s a delight.

While shopping with grandmother, the boy runs across a witch, and grandmother — a master of healing and potions and home remedies — realizes that they must escape and hide out.

They choose a ritzy hotel run by the fastidious Mr. Stringer (Stanley Tucci). Even though our heroes are Black, they receive first-class treatment, given that they are relatives of a famous chef that once helped put the hotel on the map.

Unfortunately, the witches show up at the hotel, too, under the guise of a convention of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

We learn that they are abominable things. Under their disguises they are bald (with rashes from too much wig-wearing), with clawed hands and square feet, and — creepiest of all — mouths filled with jagged, razor teeth that crack open extra-wide, from ear-to-ear, like a jack-o’-lantern.

They hate children, especially their smell, and plan to turn them into mice. They start with our hero boy, who discovers his own pet mouse Daisy (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth) was also actually a former child.

They also target Bruno (Codie-Lei Eastick), who’s one of those unfortunate chubby movie boys who is always either eating or hungry.

The three child-mice and grandmother then plan to use the witches’ mouse formula against them, and save the children of the world.

“The Witches” is colorful and whimsical and moves to a twirly, twittery Alan Silvestri score. Zemeckis directs with the kind of zip and zing he once brought to his masterpiece “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” although without a doubt lacking that film’s sublime cleverness.

Additionally, it collides up against its predecessor, the 1990 film of the same name directed by Nicolas Roeg, with creatures by Jim Henson’s workshop, and with Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch.

That film didn’t initially please audiences, as Roeg’s touch was a little too dark for the mainstream at the time. However, it has gained a cult following over the years, as Roeg’s reputation as an auteur has risen. (He also directed “Performance,” “Walkabout,” “Don’t Look Now,” and others.)

Zemeckis’ version will seem minor or bland by comparison, and contests between the various components will no doubt favor the Roeg version, especially the visual effects. The plasticky computer-generated images here don’t quite live up to Henson’s Muppet creations.

But these effects are deliberately cartoony, and far more enjoyable than the soulless creations of Zemeckis’ earlier trio of mo-cap movies (“The Polar Express,” “Beowulf, and “A Christmas Carol”).

On the whole, “The Witches” has an optimistic, inclusive spirit that seems like a tonic during this global pandemic.

It has just enough Halloween-type stuff to make a decent PG-rated viewing for families, no scarier than a visit to the Spirit Halloween store. But its true strength comes from Spencer and Hathaway, whose energetic, enthusiastic performances have the power to inspire jack-o-lantern-sized smiles.

REVIEW

The Witches

★★★

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Jahzir Kadeem Bruno

Written by: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG

Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes

Movies and TV

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