With 1990’s The Witches having reached a sort of cult status (mainly for ruining lives with that intro thing about the little girl trapped forever in a painting), it’s only natural to react to an HBO remake of the Roald Dahl story with consternation. But then you start seeing that names like Robert Zemeckis, Guillermo del Toro, Kenya Barris, Octavia Spencer and Anne Hathaway are attached, and you breathe a little easier.
The story’s the same: A young boy (newcomer Jahzir Bruno) moves in with his grandmother (Spencer) after his parents die, and a fateful vacation to a ritzy seaside hotel coincides with the annual meeting of the witching world’s top brass. There, the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) has concocted a scheme for international covens to transform children into mice—they hate kids and mice are easier to stomp to death, it seems—and the young boy is swept up in the mania with some other recently-turned-mice types.
Del Toro/Zemeckis/Barris’ take, however, sets the action in the late 1960s, complete with Motown music cues, then centers Black actors while giving Spencer’s character a little voodoo know-how. The superior special effects wizardry of today adds a little more oomph.

As always, Spencer proves herself a national treasure. She cuts an empathetic figure during emotional scenes reflecting on life and loss; she phases into heroic and witty against daunting odds—she's comforting but powerful at once. Bruno as the young lad is serviceable enough, but Hathaway repeatedly steals the film as the horrifying Grand High Witch. Part Anjelica Huston from the original (because how could you not?), part Pennywise, Hathaway's take oscilates jarringly between that of a glamorous wig aficionado to menacing monstrosity. Kudos to Hathaway's use of the crazy eye technique, and kudos again for infusing just the right amount of humor to an objectively horrifying character.

Stanley Tucci's in the mix as well, as is some early-movie narration from Chris Rock, though in both cases that hardly seems to matter. Those things exist and little else. Anyway, we're just here for the hijinks and the horror lite elements. As an added bonus, you can show this to your kids alongside the original movie then ask them to compare and contrast. That oughta kill a few hours.

+Better than you'd think, Spencer and Hathaway
-A little trite; even new story beats are predictable

The Witches
Directed by Zemeckis

With Spencer, Hathaway and Bruno
HBO Max, PG, 106 min.