A young boy stumbles onto a witch convention and must stop them, even after he has been turned into a mouse.
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Based on the book by Roald Dahl, “The Witches” is a family film with a sinister edge. Sure, it’s full of magic and cute talking mice, but it’s not meant to be enchanting. These witches may be funny, but when it comes to eradicating children from the face of the earth, they mean business.
The story centers on Luke, a young American boy visiting his grandmother Helga in Norway. When his parents are killed in a car accident, Helga becomes Luke’s guardian. Along with raising him, Helga tells her grandson the truth about witches, giving him tips on how to spot them and warning him of their evil powers. Having fought witches in her youth, Luke’s grandmother takes it all very seriously.
When she’s diagnosed with diabetes, Helga is advised to take a restful holiday. It’s off to an English seaside hotel, and as luck would have it, that is the exact hotel at which the witches of England decide to hold their annual convention. Luke overhears the witches plotting to turn every English child into a mouse, and knows he has to do something about it. The situation gets complicated when Luke is himself transformed into a mouse, and Helga’s diabetes appears to be taking its toll. Can a little mouse and an ailing elderly woman really defeat ultimate evil?
Roald Dahl may have written his books about and for children, but they weren’t really kid-friendly. His young characters were frequently dropped down garbage chutes or devoured by giants. In “The Witches,” the children face nothing less than total annihilation. Toward the beginning of the movie, Luke’s grandmother tells the boy about a childhood friend who fell prey to a witch, setting us up right away for the fact that Dahl’s witches are truly deadly.
Luke may be the hero of the film, but the big star is definitely Anjelica Huston as The Grand High Witch, commander of all the world’s witches. Slinking around in skin-tight silk and sporting a pseudo-German accent, Huston makes a wicked femme fatale. But there’s more to this lady than meets the eye. The witch’s beautiful face is a mask that hides her repulsive true form. She charms her victims with sweets and smiles, only to destroy them once they’re in her clutches. Although we only meet The Grand High Witch in time to witness her downfall, it’s all too clear how dangerous she is. The grandmother claims that this creature is responsible for the demise of “thousands of children,” so her death marks the end of a centuries-long reign of terror. It’s The Grand High Witch’s reputation that makes her truly frightening, more so than what she does over the course of the film.
Even if Anjelica Huston has the showiest part, the rest of the cast holds their own against her. Jasen Fisher is appealing as Luke, putting in an honest performance that never slips into preciousness. As Helga, the late Mai Zetterling is the perfect example of an iron fist in a velvet glove. She adores her grandson, but far from being a dear little granny, she is a cigar-smoking warrior dedicated to ridding the world of witches.
Charlie Potter plays Bruno Jenkins, the only other major child (and talking mouse) in the movie. Bruno’s journey is an interesting sub-plot, as he evolves from a gluttonous rich kid into a vital part of the plot to foil the witches. As for his parents, Bill Paterson and Brenda Blethyn are totally clueless as to what’s going on, but can anyone blame them for refusing to believe their son has been transformed into a mouse? Rowan Atkinson plays the hilariously high-strung hotel manager, and those familiar only with his work as Mr. Bean will see a different side of the actor’s comedic talents. Finally, there’s British comic actress Jane Horrocks as The Grand High Witch’s assistant. Her character arc is particularly intriguing, as she’s apparently the only witch around who isn’t quite as rotten as she seems.
The effects are fun and impressive, particularly when it comes to the puppets. Created by the Jim Henson Company, the mouse puppets blend realism and expressiveness. Subtle movements of their heads and paws convey a great deal of character, especially when coupled with excellent voiceover work by the kids. Real mice are used for action sequences, but the live animals and puppets are used so effectively that the audience stops distinguishing between them and just sees them as the characters they represent.
The make-up is also very nicely done, giving us some truly grotesque witches. The Grand High Witch, of course, is that most revolting of all, requiring full prosthetic make-up when all her subjects are just outfitted with stage teeth and scabby skullcaps.
Puppeteering and make-up come together to pull off some memorable transformation sequences. These are actually quite nightmarish, thanks to some imaginatively bizarre creature designs.
Director Nicolas Roeg ably mixes horror and comedy, and despite the creepy subject matter, he wisely keeps the tone from getting too dark. He actually has the film end happily, a decision with which Roald Dahl was not exactly thrilled. Yet even if it doesn’t have the harsh ending Dahl chose for his book, Roeg’s film still emulates the kind of savage humour for which the author was famous.
Kids can handle more than adults tend to give them credit for, and a little scare certainly won’t kill them. “The Witches” recalls the Grimm’s fairytales and their original purpose: to prepare children for the perils of the world. Roald Dahl’s witches definitely belong among the ranks of their Grimm predecessors. They trade poisoned apples for chocolate bars, but no matter the modus operandi, the villainy is the same. Stories like these teach children to be wary of smiling strangers bearing gifts, whether or not they have glowing purple eyes to give them away.