‘The Witches’ – A Review And Study Plan

Use this review and study plan alongside the film ‘The Witches’ to understand better the themes of pain, loss and loneliness of becoming an orphan, hard lessons about fairness, and the finding of a friend. The battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ flows through the film, with blurred edges as ‘good’ and ‘alternative’ collide. Other themes that have been picked up from the book and the film include suggestions of societies view of women, misogyny and sexism, as well as the films portrayal of the physical differences of the witches and the impact of this on disabled people. This study plan is primarily created to be used with children and young people, e.g. in a youth group setting, but could also easily be used at home.

Film Title: The Witches
Year of Release: 2020
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis, Jack Rapke
Certificate: PG
Running time: 1 hours, 44 minutes

BBFC certification insight:
“THE WITCHES is a comic supernatural fantasy, based on the Roald Dahl novel, and in which a young boy encounters a coven of witches.

There is infrequent mild bad language (‘crap’), as well as milder terms (‘hell, ‘damn’). Witches with distended mouths, sharp teeth and claws menace children and adults. People are transformed into animals, and sometimes explode in clouds of purple smoke before transforming into mice. Scenes of threat are mild and brief, and there is no injury detail. A boy is rescued from an upturned car after his parents are killed in a car crash; however, there is no sight of the parents’ bodies. The boy grieves for his parents, but his grandmother takes care of him and provides reassurance.”

“Reimagining Roald Dahl’s beloved story for a modern audience, Robert Zemeckis’s visually innovative film tells the darkly humorous and heartwarming tale of a young orphaned boy who, in late 1967, goes to live with his loving Grandma in the rural Alabama town of Demopolis. As the boy and his grandmother encounter some deceptively glamorous but thoroughly diabolical witches, she wisely whisks him away to a seaside resort. Regrettably, they arrive at precisely the same time that the world’s Grand High Witch has gathered her fellow cronies from around the globe-undercover-to carry out her nefarious plans.” Written by Warner Bros./HBOMax

The depiction of characters in the film have caused controversy, a theme we will pick up later in this ‘Energize at the Movies’ article, causing Warner Bros. to issue a statement of apology. A spokesperson for Warner Bros. said the studio was “deeply saddened to learn that our depiction of the fictional characters in ‘The Witches’ could upset people with disabilities.’” “In adapting the original story, we worked with designers and artists to come up with a new interpretation of the cat-like claws that are described in the book,” the statement reads. “It was never the intention for viewers to feel that the fantastical, non-human creatures were meant to represent them. This film is about the power of kindness and friendship. It is our hope that families and children can enjoy the film and embrace this empowering, love-filled theme.”

Link to trailer and other clips from ‘The Witch’ on the IMDb (Internet Movie Database) website: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0805647/videogallery/?ref_=tt_pv_vi_sm

Part 1: What you felt about the film:
Sometimes young people find it hard to contribute to a group discussion. They may feel shy or that their contribution might appear silly. The first part of the session is therefore a chance for young people to think about the film and begin to develop an initial reaction to what they have seen in a way that everyone will have something to contribute. These are some simple, quick exercises to get everyone thinking about their reaction to the film.

Good versus evil
In the film, we see a battle played out between ‘good’ characters (the children/mice) and ‘evil’ characters (the witches). Ask the young people about their experiences and understanding of good and evil. What ‘good’ or ‘evil’ film characters in other films can they think of?

Being each of the characters
We journey through the film through the eyes of various characters, including the unnamed ‘Hero Boy’ (as boy and mouse), Grandma (as a girl and an older woman), Daisy/Mary, Bruno (as boy and mouse), the Grand High Witch, and a host of other characters. Which character do the young people feel closest to? Is there one they like most? Or dislike most? Why?

Part 2: Key themes in the film:
There are a huge range of themes covered, or alluded to, in this film. The pain, loss and loneliness of becoming an orphan, hard lessons about fairness, and the finding of a friend. The battle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ flows through the film, with blurred edges as ‘good’ and ‘alternative’ collide. Other themes that have been picked up from the book and the film include suggestions of societies view of women, misogyny and sexism, as well as the films portrayal of the physical differences of the witches and the impact of this on disabled people. This section gives the young people a chance to explore some of these important issues in more depth.

The lead character, ‘Hero Boy’, struggles to come to terms with his loss and grief after the death of his parents in a car accident that he was also in. He is taken in by his maternal Grandmother, who herself is coming to terms with the loss of her daughter. 

Watch the clip: 00:02:11 to 00:04:01

There are many children in the UK, and large numbers across the world, who have lost their parents. UNICEF estimated that there were 140 million orphans globally in 2015 (their last published figures), with approximately 5,700 children becoming orphans every day (https://www.unicef.org/media/orphans).

What views do the young people have about orphans? Do they recognise that this is a local issue as well as a global one? What are some of the factors that might result in children being orphaned? (Accident as with ‘Hero Boy’, illness, war, famine, people migration, people trafficking, abandonment…)

Later in the film, there is reference to other characters also experiencing being an orphan or feeling uncared for by their parents.

Watch the clip: 01:09:15 to 01:10:26

In this clip Mary (known earlier as ‘Daisy’ the mouse, before it becomes clear that she is a girl transformed into a mouse by the witches) talks about her life in an orphanage, while Bruno, a boy also turned into a mouse, talks about how unloved he is by his parents.

Ask the young people if the thoughts shared by ‘Hero Boy’, ‘Mary’/‘Daisy’, or ‘Bruno’ resonate with them, and if so why? Be sensitive to any children in the group that you know are cared for, or from unstable backgrounds.

You could look at the following scriptures if you want to encourage the young people to see what the Bible says about this…

Bible verses:
Psalm 68:5
Deuteronomy 10:18
Psalm 10:14
James 1:27
Deuteronomy 14:29

Is this the will of God? God’s teaching? God’s plan?
‘Hero Boy’s Grandma tells him that what has happened is bad, but that she is not sorry as she suggests that maybe it is God’s plan, God’s teaching.

Watch the clip: 00:07:51 to 00:09:00

Grandma tells ‘Hero Boy’ that life isn’t fair, that it’s a hard lesson. What do the young people think of this approach? Are life’s tragedies God teaching us a lesson? Are they his will? Is Grandma’s tough message helpful for ‘Hero Boy’?

You could look at the following scriptures if you want to encourage the young people to see what the Bible says about this…

Bible verses:
Jeremiah 29:11
Job 34:12
Isaiah 63:9
Isaiah 43:2
Philippians 2:13

‘Hero Boy’ is lonely and looks longingly out of the window at other children playing. His Grandma gets him a pet mouse which he names ‘Daisy’.

Watch the clip: 00:09:34 to 00:11:24

‘Daisy’ is company for ‘Hero Boy’ and helps him to start to cope with his loss. Ask the young people if they have any experience of loss, and if they are willing to talk about it to share what helped them start to come to terms with it. Again, be sensitive to any young people who you know are journeying with loss.

Key question: How do we view young people who have experienced loss? What is it like to grieve? How can we make a difference for them.

The portrayal of the physical characteristics of the witches has been controversial, with many disabled people and organisations representing them criticising the film for portraying physical difference as evil.

A still from the film ‘The Witches’, showing the ‘Grand High Witch’

The Paralympic Games movement has been openly critical of the film, Tweeting that “Limb difference is not scary. Differences should be celebrated and disability has to be normalised.”

While the Lucky Fin Project, a non-profit project aimed to raise awareness, support and celebrate those born with symbrachydactyly or limb difference, Tweeted “The community upset over this “kid friendly” film has been overwhelming. The deliberate choice to make Anne Hathaway’s character in the new @wbpictures film #TheWitches limb different in efforts to make her more creepy and sinister is upsetting. #LimbDifferenceAwareness

Watch the clip: 00:27:04 to 00:28:20

The BBC asked Actress and TV presenter Grace Mandeville for her opinion and she said she was “…really disappointed with the decision to give the villains in the movie a disability for absolutely no reason other than to make the character seem scarier”. “The truth is children will watch this movie and some will then be scared of people that have limb impairments or ectrodactyly [a split hand] thanks to this film.” “I thought we were moving forward in this industry, but once again a movie has used scars and a disability to create a scary character.”

She added: “I’m aware that this is just a movie to some people, but this affects the perception of disabled people more than you’ll realise. I dread to think how a class of children would react to a new classmate who has a scar or a limb impairment after they’ve all watched this film.”

UK Paralympic swimmer and Para-triathlete Claire Cashmore was among others who warned that the film could have a negative effect. Cashmore, who was born without a left forearm, said images of Hathaway’s character had left her “very confused/upset”, and suggested Warner Bros. should have sought feedback before making the film. “We want disabilities to be normalised and be represented in a positive light rather than [be] associated with being a scary, evil witch,”

Ask the young people what their views are on this. Do they feel that Warner Bros. have misjudged the response to this issue?

Give some more opportunities for the young people to share some more of their understanding of difference, disability and additional needs, following on from what has been discussed. Be sensitive to members of the group who may have additional needs themselves, but see if they are willing to share something of their own lived experience of prejudice.

Key question: Does having additional/special needs or a disability always have to be negative?

You could look at the following scriptures if you want to encourage the young people to see what the Bible says about this…

Bible verses:
2 Samuel 9 (whole chapter)
Micah 4:6-7
Luke 14:13-14
2 Corinthians 12:9-10

At least 60% of all young people with additional needs or disabilities are bullied, three times the average for young people generally (and that figure is bad enough!)

Ask the young people what their experience of bullying is, either personally if they are willing to share it, or what they have witnessed. Have they seen bullying of young people with additional needs or disabilities? Are they willing to admit that they have been a bully in the past? Why did they do that?

How can bullying affect young people’s self-esteem? How do they feel that the world views them?

Key question: How should we respond to bullies? Where can we look for support?

You could look at the following scriptures if you want to encourage the young people to see what the Bible says about this…

Bible verses:
Deuteronomy 31:6
Psalm 18:3
Psalm 27:1
Proverbs 12:18
Matthew 5:43-48
2 Timothy 1:7

Views of women
There is some argument surrounding the book and the film as being an out-of-date metaphor for the way that women are viewed by society, or the way that they view themselves, causing it to be number 22 on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books.

The witches aim is to get rid of children, a counterpoint to the more traditional or stereotypical view of women as child bearers, child rearers, primary care givers. That the witches dress as ‘glamourous’ women raises comparisons between the ‘beautiful’ facade or illusion and the ‘ugly’ reality behind the mask of the makeup and clothes. This misogynistic and sexist viewpoint has surrounded the book for a while and this latest film adaptation does nothing to overcome it.

A still from the film ‘The Witches’ showing the witches as glamorous women

Another, similar, viewpoint aimed at both the book and the film is that it portrays that women themselves are afraid to be seen without the ‘mask’ of makeup and clothes, and that they fear how the world would view them if it saw them as they really are. The scene where the witches gather in the ball room, lock the door, and then reveal their true selves, plays to this theory.

Watch the clip: 00:34:32 to 00:39:10

Ask the young people whether they see these metaphors at play in the film, and what their views are. How do they feel the world views them? Do they wear a ‘mask’?

Key question: Many of us have ‘scars’, either visible or invisible, or aspects of our appearance that we don’t necessarily like. We can all experience painful situations or worry about what people think of us or how we look. How do we cope with having these ‘scars’, or with the difficult situations or worries that can arise?

(Note: Be careful with this part of the discussion if you are aware of a young person who may have scars due to self-harming, for example, or if someone has a scar or birthmark that they are upset or embarrassed about.)

You could look at the following scriptures if you want to encourage the young people to see what the Bible says about this…

Bible verses:
Isaiah 53:3
Matthew 5:10-12
2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Revelation 21:4

Good/love conquers evil/hatred
As the film concludes, the showdown between the hero’s and villains reaches its climax. As expected, the heroes overcome the evil Grand High Witch, however ultimately they remain affected by the legacy of what she has done to them; they remain mice.

Watch the clip: 01:26:13 to 01:28:30

Sometimes things cannot be undone; the impact of bad deeds remains. Ask the young people if they have any examples of where bad decisions or actions have left lasting impact.

Ultimately, like all films like this, there has to be a happy ending, and although the three children remain mice they are happy mice! Being a mouse can be fun when you’re with friends, and Grandma reminds them that it’s what you are inside that matters.

Watch the clip: 01:32:00 to 01:35:27

Still from the film ‘The Witches’ showing the three friends, ‘Bruno’, ‘Mary/Daisy’ and ‘Hero Boy’

Ask the young people to share times when they’ve been able to feel better about a situation because their friends have cheered them up. Do they share the view that it’s what you are inside that matters? How does this view mesh with the discussion earlier about appearance?

You could look at the following scriptures if you want to encourage the young people to see what the Bible says about this…

Bible verses:
Job 2:11
Proverbs 17:17
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Colossians 3:12-14
John 15:12-15

Part 3: Comparing the story
The third part of the session is a chance to compare the story of the film with a story in the Bible. What are the similarities and differences, and what does this tell us about God’s Kingdom?

Young people may not grasp all the theological points that could be made, but it’s important for them to begin to get used to the idea of critiquing what they see and holding it against the value and beliefs of the Christian faith.

Some of this reflection may come from an open discussion and as seen above, there are many themes and directions that this could take.

There are many Bible stories that the young people might be aware of around the themes that emerge from the film ‘The Witches’; ‘orphans’, ‘loneliness’, ‘difference’, ‘bullying’, ‘views of women’, ‘friendship’, and ‘good conquering evil’.

Job is a good comparison here, as he experienced many of these situations, yet ultimately held firm to his convictions, his faith. Think also of Ruth, Joseph, Daniel, or Esther. What other Bible characters do the young people know that might be relevant comparators to parts of this story? How do the young people compare themselves to these Bible characters? What can they learn from them?

Mark Arnold
6th November 2020

All film images, characters and content © Warner Bros.

Also published as an ‘Energize At The Movies’ meeting plan on the Urban Saints Energize website: https://www.energize.uk.net

See also:
‘Wonder’ – A Review And Study Plan

Why Disney Pixar’s New Animated Short ‘Float’ Is About Autism

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