An obnoxious, borderline offensive motion picture, The Witches is yet another astounding instance of lowering the bar when it comes to family entertainment. Based on the infinitely superior book of the same name by Roald Dahl, this 1990 comedy horror has the honour of being the last film Jim Henson personally worked on before his death in May of the same year. It’s also the last film adaptation of Dahl’s work prior to his death in November of the same year.
The best children’s literature and entertainment in general comes when kids aren’t taken lightly. They can handle a lot more complicated material than so-called adults generally give them credit for and are even capable of more than a few good scares. To that end, Dahl was a favourite because he didn’t talk down to children. It’s too bad the same can’t be said for this adaptation.
The Witches opens with Helga (Mai Zetterling) telling her grandson Luke (Jasen Fisher) about witches, a group of dangerous, purple-eyed women in sensitive shoes that would love nothing more than to kidnap and kill children. There’s no reason given for this, but Helga talks about a childhood friend who was taken by witches and seems to take the threat very seriously.
Luke’s parents are killed in a non-witch-related car crash, which puts him in the care of his witch-hating grandmother. She turns out to be diabetic, but shuns her doctor’s advice by still chomping on cigars. When a witch (Anne Lambton) tries to snatch Luke from a tree, it looks like the little gaffer is a target. And when a trip to a seaside hotel turns out to coincide with the meeting of the witches and their leader (Anjelica Huston), more trouble is afoot.
The Witches ventures through a couple of phases, each one more ludicrous than the previous. The opening is an interesting tale of grandmother scaring the crap out of her grandson and generating a mythology of witches. Fine. By the end of the flick, however, children have been turned into mice and are talking to humans.
There’s nothing wrong with the puppetry and the special effects in The Witches and there’s nothing really wrong with talking mice, although there is some confusion about who can hear them and who can’t hear them. The problem with Nicholas Roeg’s vision is how much it panders to kids, how much it requires the mice to have little irritating voices that point out every single action other characters are taking (“She’s eating the soup!”) ad nauseam.
For all the puppetry and special effects, the human elements of The Witches don’t come together well. The acting is atrocious, even from a hammy Huston. Zetterling, a Swedish actress and director, does well with human characters but seems to really struggle when the time comes to zone in on the mice. And Fisher is just grating as both boy and mouse.
The Witches is suitably scary, at least in terms of how it could impact young children, but there’s really no substance or meaning to it. Characterizing childless, frumpy women in sensible shoes as vicious witches is a strange one, as there really is no motivation behind their existence. They seem to want to destroy all children only because they smell.
There are several differences between Dahl’s book and Roeg’s film, with the most egregious coming to bear at the movie’s insufficient conclusion. Not only does the finale present an inexplicable character shift, it undermines the basic depiction of witches previously outlined in the picture. The Witches, for all its special effects and visual creativity, remains yet another demeaning example of limp entertainment for kids.