Down From the Shelf ~ The Witches



The Facts:

Synopsis: A young boy stumbles onto a witch convention and must stop them, even after he has been turned into a mouse.

Stars: Angelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher, Rowan Atkinson, Brenda Blethyn, Jane Horrocks, Bill Paterson

Director: Nicolas Roeg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

ReviewThe Witches has been staring me down for nearly a year.  From where I sit while watching television/movies, I have a good view of my film collection and The Witches happened to be right in my eyeline.  Whenever my focus would drift over my library I’d always think to myself that I needed to take the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book down off the shelf and watch it for the first time in the better part of a decade.

For my first review of 2013, I decided to take my own advice and give this pleasing fantasy film a look to see if it had held up in the 22 years since it was released.  Though I look at it now through different eyes, I still found the film to be quite entertaining and just dark enough to stand out from the crowd of countless family films that were released in the late 80’s and early 90’s when the market really boomed.

The last film that Muppet-creator Jim Henson personally oversaw, The Witches brims with good will and special effects that still work today.  Though I agree with those that have found the film to be too scary for very small children, I think that children ten and older would get a kick out of the story of a boy and his grandmother that thwart a group of witches determined to turn the children of England into mice.

Knowing much more about film than I did when I saw The Witches over ten times at The Riverview in late 1990, I can see how interesting of a film it was based on the creative team alone.  In addition to Henson, director Roeg was not known for his family friendly films.  His creepy Don’t Look Now is considered by many to be a mystery classic and the same screenwriter (Allan Scott) that adapted Daphne Du Maurier’s novel was employed by Roeg to bring Dahl’s novel to life.  The first twenty minutes of the film has to navigate some tricky waters by giving us the rules of the witches, told to young Luke (Fisher, Parenthood) by his grandma Helga (Zetterling…another player known for much more adult fare).  Soon, Luke is orphaned and taken to England by Helga for a brief holiday at a seaside luxury hotel.  The only problem is, also staying at the hotel is a gathering of witches arriving from all over England for their yearly meeting.

The Grand High Witch is played with a great amount of fun by Huston who Dahl was beyond pleased was playing the role.  Huston is equal parts faux sweet and nasty as she relays her plans to use a potion put into sweets to make mice out of any child that consumes candy.   When Luke and another child are turned into mice (courtesy of some practical magic by Henson and company) they must work with Helga to stop the witches before it’s too late.

As is the case with many Dahl stories, there are a few lessons to be learned here and they are delivered to us without the usual heavy handed approach many films can’t avoid.  Perhaps it was the European production that gives the film a decidedly offbeat charm that continues to impress today.  It’s a film with real zip, aided by arch performances that don’t veer into camp and some wonderful (but more than a little scary) special effects involving vermin and what’s really beneath a witch’s skin.

Though Dahl wasn’t too happy with the filmmakers changing the ending of his book, I can see why Warner Brothers made that call.  Both have happy endings but the finale of the film probably was the right choice when you consider the audience.  The Witches casts a nice spell for its 91 minutes and I’m happy that I can put it back into my collection with fond memories intact.