Robert Zemeckis’s retelling of the wicked children’s story feels more grumpy than scary, while its comedy veers between frantic and strained
Who did Roald Dahl hate more: grownups or children? Kingsley Amis says that Dahl once told him to try writing for children and when Amis said his heart wouldn’t be in it, Dahl replied: “Never mind, the little bastards’d swallow it.” The issue of Dahl’s attitude towards his readership is revived once again with director Robert Zemeckis’s “reimagining” of Dahl’s story The Witches, first published in 1983 and filmed by Nicolas Roeg in 1990 with Anjelica Huston as the incognito Grand High Witch who convenes a sinister children’s charity event in a hotel ballroom.
Now Zemeckis has collaborated with Guillermo Del Toro and Kenya Barris on the screenplay for another version, absorbing some of the earlier film, although why exactly this process has to have the grand label of “reimagining” isn’t clear. Apart from a few shifts in period and location, and narrative tweaks bringing it slightly closer to the book than Roeg, it’s a pretty conventional adaptation. (The boldest reimagining of Dahl was surely Wes Anderson’s animated version of Fantastic Mr Fox.)