In this retelling, the nameless, orphaned hero (Jahzir Bruno) is African-American, as is his loving grandmother (Octavia Spencer, the film’s biggest strength). The action has been relocated from late 20th-century Britain to Alabama in 1968, around the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King.
This suggests some kind of subtext connected with the civil rights struggle. But this never quite comes into focus, despite the main location being a fancy hotel most commonly patronised by rich whites: the witches themselves, who have chosen this venue for their annual conference, appear to hail from all corners of the globe.
Nor is it clear if Zemeckis ever stopped to wonder how far Dahl’s story might parallel certain paranoid fantasies all too current in 2020 – in its depiction of an international secret society of child predators, or its insistence that witches aren’t really women but demons disguised in make-up, gloves and wigs.
None of this is to say The Witches is a reactionary film, at least on any conscious level. Perhaps there’s a hint of over-compensation in the finale, which sticks closer than Roeg did to the book, but also incorporates disco music, an affirmation of non-traditional families and the statement that it’s what’s inside that counts.