The Witches (VOD, including Amazon, Prime Video and Sky Cinema, from Monday, PG)
Verdict: Enchantingly gruesome
The Secret Garden (cinemas, PG)
Verdict: Mildly disappointing
Once Upon A Snowman (Disney+)
Verdict: Not too abominable
The imagination of Roald Dahl and the ingenuity of director Robert Zemeckis make an enchantingly heady brew in The Witches, the better of two half-term releases based on popular children’s novels.
Be warned, though, that younger viewers might be scared out of their wits.
Zemeckis, the Back To The Future and Forrest Gump director whose cleverness with special effects is practically a trademark, uses all the computerised bells and whistles at his disposal to bring the characters thrillingly if gruesomely to life.
The imagination of Roald Dahl and the ingenuity of director Robert Zemeckis make an enchantingly heady brew in The Witches
Yet he also manages to stay faithful to the vision of Dahl’s regular collaborator, the great illustrator Quentin Blake.
Zemeckis is helped by some memorable performances, most conspicuously that of Anne Hathaway, playing the Grand High Witch with glorious Grand Guignol abandon.
She doubtless knew she had a big cauldron to fill — Anjelica Huston was marvellous in the 1990 film version and perhaps a more obvious fit. But Hathaway is a hoot.
The book was published in 1983 and set in contemporary England and Norway.
But Zemeckis and his co-writers, Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro, have shunted it back to 1968 and switched the setting to the U.S. Deep South.
Del Toro is also one of the film’s producers, by the way, with another illustrious director, Alfonso Cuaron.
There is a lot of cinematic experience behind this movie, and it shows.
Octavia Spencer (pictured) is reliably splendid as a stern but warm-hearted grandmother, here named Agatha, who raises her young grandson, Charlie
The main characters are made African-American but that is not some whimsical flight of wokeness, nor even a woke flight of whimsy.
Both they and the period suit the story perfectly — and also enable a fabulous Motown soundtrack.
Octavia Spencer is reliably splendid as a stern but warm-hearted grandmother, here named Agatha, who raises her young grandson, Charlie (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno, also excellent), after he is orphaned in a road accident.
With comedian Chris Rock narrating as the grown-up Charlie, the narrative soon shifts from Chicago to Alabama, where Agatha takes Charlie once she becomes aware that there are witches at large.
She knows about them and their objective to turn the world’s children into animals; her closest childhood friend ended up as a chicken.
So Agatha and Charlie take up residence at the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel; its obsequious manager played with lovely comic flourishes by Stanley Tucci.
Unfortunately, the impending convention of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is a cover for a coven, plotting to turn all under-12s into mice.
The Grand High Witch, reputedly hatched on the frozen Norwegian tundra and, intentionally or not, given a bizarre Scandinavian-RussianGerman-Polish accent by Hathaway, wants her acolytes to return to their towns to open candy stores (sweet shops originally, you’ll recall), to lure the little blighters.
Zemeckis has great fun with all this and, in choreographing some of the hotel scenes, appears to have had Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like It Hot in mind.
The challenge for anyone who adapts Dahl’s stories for the screen is to make magic out of the macabre, and in this he succeeds triumphantly. It’s a wonderful film.
The Secret Garden, by contrast, is a mild disappointment.
There are some great things in it — not least Colin Firth (pictured) and Julie Walters — but it never quite recaptures the charm of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beguiling 1911 novel
There are some great things in it — not least Colin Firth and Julie Walters — but it never quite recaptures the charm of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beguiling 1911 novel.
Like The Witches, it shifts the period setting — in this case to 1947.
And as in The Witches, the hero is a relocated orphan, Mary Lennox (nicely played by Dixie Egerickx), brought up in great if lonely splendour in the Raj but now forced to share a big, gloomy home on the edge of the Yorkshire moors with her miserable hump-backed uncle (Firth) and his sickly, bedridden son Colin (Edan Hayhurst).
Mrs Medlock the housekeeper (Walters) is no barrel of laughs, either. But happily, Mary finds both a playmate, Dickon (Amir Wilson) and a playground.
Marc Munden’s film, the latest in a long list of screen adaptations, is certainly the most sumptuous to look at, but that’s part of the problem.
Everything is distractingly bigger than in the novel — the house, Misselthwaite, is a vast stately home, while the garden seems to occupy its own semi-tropical ecosystem.
And I don’t remember a terrible fire in the original story, ignited here as if screenwriter Jack Thorne had a sudden urge to pay homage to Jane Eyre.
From fire to ice, Once Upon A Snowman is Disney’s latest ride on the steel-runnered Frozen bandwagon.
It’s Olaf the snowman’s cutesy origin story, a seven-minute short dispiritingly billed as a ‘Frozen midquel’, competently animated and precisely as missable as it is watchable.
Once Upon A Snowman is Disney’s latest ride on the steel-runnered Frozen bandwagon. It’s Olaf the snowman’s cutesy origin story
Robber going straight meets cops gone bent
Honest Thief (cinemas, 15)
Verdict: Worth stealing out for
Pixie (cinemas, 15)
Verdict: Hit and (mostly) miss
Just when you think Liam Neeson, right, might, at 68, finally be getting too old to punch another bloke’s lights out and leg it down the street without anyone being able to catch him, here he is in Honest Thief, playing a bank robber with a conscience who happens, in what might almost be called Neeson’s Law, to be a heroic former Marine.
Actually, for all its predictability and one or two highly unlikely plot developments, this thriller isn’t at all bad.
It is directed and co-written by Mark Williams, whose credits include the compelling Netflix series Ozark, so that’s a promising sign.
And it rolls along pretty watchably as Tom (Neeson), desperate to lead an irreproachable post-jail life with new love Annie (Kate Walsh), tries to hand himself in to the Boston FBI — he’s the robber dubbed the ‘in-and-out bandit’ — but finds himself instead mixed up with a pair of corrupt Feds who just want his loot.
Incidentally, Honest Thief shares that weird quirk of all U.S.-set Neeson films in that absolutely no one expresses any interest in his Ballymena brogue.
n Back in the old country, meanwhile, Pixie is a top-o’-the-mornin’ failed-heist caper featuring drugs, gangsters and likely lads. That makes it sound like a film by one of the McDonagh brothers but it promises way more than it delivers.
The cast is good, with Alec Baldwin and Colm Meaney playing rival gang leaders, a cameo for Dylan Moran, and Olivia Cooke as a kind of modern-day Irish version of Becky Sharp, her character in the 2018 TV drama Vanity Fair.
But the script, by director Barnaby Thompson’s son Preston, is disappointingly hit-and-miss.
And if I see one more gangster film in which the dead fella in the boot of a car turns out to be still alive, a cliché that really should have expired with Goodfellas, I might climb into a concrete overcoat myself.