The Witches (1990)

I remember the first time I saw The Witches.  All I knew is that it was a movie my girlfriend at the time wanted to see.  I had no idea about Jim Henson's involvement and even less about Roald Dahl, other than he wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  The name I did recognize when the credits started up was Nicolas Roeg.

Yes, it does seems strange for an 18-year-old on the cusp of graduating high school in 1990 to get excited when the name Nicolas Roeg came up.  However, there was good reason.  Science fiction and music were always a passion of mine.  I was not the biggest David Bowie fan at the time (except for the first Tin Machine album he was not releasing anything new or exciting) but appreciated him enough.  I was a fan of a rather strange science fiction movie he was involved in, The Man Who Fell to Earth, which in some ways dovetailed with his Ziggy Stardust persona at the time it was made.  I was suddenly interested in what an obvious art film director was going to do with a children's film.

Needless to say I enjoyed it.  I thought it would do better than it initially did, but it was delayed form release for a year and then dumped into theaters at a time of year movie studios usually reserve for films about cross-dressing cops.  Predictably, over the years, it has found its audience, even if that audience did not include the author of the book.

Luke (Jasen Fisher) is an American kid from a well-to-do family who has grown up hearing stories about witches from his Norwegian grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling).  After his parents die in a car accident, Helga decides to follow their wishes and, instead of going immediately back to the United States, takes Luke to the United Kingdom to attend boarding school.  While there they decide to take a vacation at the Hotel Excelsior and enjoy the beach a bit.

Unfortunately for Luke the Hotel Excelsior is also hosting a convention for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.  Unfortunate because, as it turns out, it is a gathering of witches, including the Grand High Witch (Angelica Huston) who has come up with a cunning plan that cannot fail - through various maneuvers, she intends to turn all the children of England into mice.  The reason is because, for untold reasons, witches seem to be obsessed with wiping out children, whom they find to be smelly and annoying. 

Luke, of course, finds out about this, but is turned into a mouse before he can do anything.  He must enlist his grandmother and another child named Bruno (Charlie Potter) who has suffered the same fate to do what they can to stop the witches from enacting their scheme.  They must also avoid the fussy hotel manager (Rowan Atkinson) who is determined to make sure the hotel is mouse free.

The Witches may be a latter-day PG movie, but it still retains some of the spirit of the book.  Ironically, while he was upset about the ending and about some of the more psychologically disturbing parts of the book being glossed over, Roald Dahl was also upset that there was too much in the movie that was actually frightening.  During the rest of his lifetime he was not to quick to sell the film rights to any of his other books, and even made some stipulations in his will.  Despite his reaction, The Witches is still a movie for children that is also entertaining for adults, as it still strikes on some basic fears that adults can remember having when younger.  It also doesn't pull punches and doesn't talk down to children.  One of the reasons movies like The Witches and The Goonies still work after all these years is because there is an actual danger to the children involved, and you don't know if everyone is going to come out safe.  Too many children's movies are clear that there are no consequences.

That may also be why the Muppets themselves endure as well.  While Sesame Street may be devoid of anything frighteningly adult, once the children get older and discover other Jim Henson productions they start to get opened up, albeit slowly, to a number of adult concepts.  The Witches in many ways is about overcoming childhood fears and traumas, while a movie like Labyrinth is about that fear of crossing the final threshold into adulthood.  While I do see Dahl's point about watering some of it down, the concepts he wanted to express are still there. 

Both Jasen Fisher and Charlie Potter fit well in their rolls, and never become annoying or unrealistic, even if Bruno is pretty much Augustus Gloop in another form.  Mai Zetterling, in her final role, isn't just left to telling stories, as it becomes quite clear that she and Miss Ernst, the Grand High Witch, have some past history.  Angelican Huston is wonderfully evil, both in and out of the makeup.  Rowan Atkinson does his best Basil Fawlty impression throughout, even though I'm sure Fawlty knew better than to "manage the staff" behind closed doors; Sybil would have had his dried carcass hanging out in front of the hotel. 

There are a few problems with the pacing.  Some of the movie goes by way too fast and occasionally feels like it was a bit unfinished.  The decision to have many of the witches be men dressed as women is a strange one (and is extremely noticeable) and heavily distracts from what should be a key scene.  It is also left a bit too open about whether Miss Ernst was the Grand High Witch that Helga had searched for to avenge what happened to a friend of hers, or if she was an old enemy that was promoted to the position at some point.  There's also the question about good witches existing, and if they have the same deformities and disgust of children as the bad ones.

To be honest I do not believe the book touched much on it either, and we have all seen in recent years what happens when even talented writers and directors try to add their own material to a story that is perfectly fine as it is.  It is a children's book after all, and even Nicolas Roeg held back a lot of his usual impulses when directing it.  What we did get still remains one of the better movies to show children, with enough heart and horror to be entertaining, especially if the child has just read the book.

The Witches (1990)
Time: 91 minutes
Starring: Angelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher, Charlie Potter
Director: Nicolas Roeg


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