Jim Henson’s last work was done on The Witches, a live-action/puppet adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel. It was, oddly enough, the first and only time these veteran children’s entertainers had worked together, although their shared cheery love for violence in children’s entertainment should have created a bond, and Henson clearly admired Dahl’s work. Indeed, a case can be made that, until its final moments, The Witches is the most faithful of the various adaptations of Dahl’s work. It contains properly scary witches, Anjelica Huston as over-the-top evil as really only she can get (Dahl was reportedly delighted to learn that she had been cast), various veteran British comedians and actors, and two cute mice.
I was mostly bored.
The film starts off well. Young Luke, given a hasty American background to explain his young actor’s accent, is listening to his grandmother’s tales of witches. It’s difficult to tell if she’s telling the truth or just a bedtime story, but whichever, the stories are distinctly creepy, especially the story of the little girl who may or may not have been pulled into a painting. After an extremely brief scene, his parents die, and his grandmother takes him to England, where he encounters his first real witch. This is where things start to go wrong. And by wrong, I mean, boring.
As in the book, the grandmother gets ill and is sent away with her grandson to a seaside hotel to recover. By an astonishing coincidence, also at the hotel are the annual convention of British witches (carefully concealing themselves under the benign name of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children) led by a completely vamped-out Grand High Witch, played with great relish by Anjelica Huston, a greedy boy named Bruno and his social climbing, complaining family, and Rowan Atkinson, running the hotel. Both Bruno and Luke have terrifying encounters with the witches (although at least Bruno’s encounter involves chocolate) and before they know it, both boys have been transformed into mice.
They take this well, all things considered—Bruno can still eat, Luke realizes he doesn’t have to go to school—although their families are horrified. Luke, meanwhile, realizes that life and fighting evil doesn’t have to stop just because he’s turned into a mouse, and with the help of his grandmother, he plots to stop the witches from carrying out their evil plan. Which is also going to involve a rather fun bit with soup.
I should be enthralled. But, alas, the transition bits, if faithful to the book, greatly slow down the film’s pace, and once in the hotel, quite a few people seem to be acting in different movies, with Rowan Atkinson focused on pleasing hotel guests and romancing one of his employees, the witches set on harming children, and the mice running around. It all feels rather disjointed, even if sometimes these storylines interact, as when some of the social climbing hotel guests attempt to interact with the Grand High Witch, or when the Grand High Witch and her minions attempt to enjoy their banquet—and soup. The final riotous transformation/mouse scene also serves as a sort of get-together for the characters, and has several excellent moments.
But other scenes make suspending disbelief very very difficult. Oh, not so much the witches’ plan to turn every child in England into a mouse—they are, after all, witches. So that makes sense. But the scenes where the witches discover that young Luke has been listening to them, and the follow up chase scene on the beach, not so much. I find it difficult to believe that anyone not named James Bond, cute kid or otherwise, could manage to escape from and through one hundred women trying to grab him, especially since these one hundred women all know how to use magic, and have already shown that they will not hesitate to use it. They hate kids. They know the kid has been hiding and presumably has not told anyone where he is. Destroying him would be simple. A later beach chase scene is even worse—not so much for the bit where Anjelica Huston sends a baby pram hurtling down towards the cliffs, because, see above about the hating children, but that AFTER this, Luke returns and walks RIGHT UP to the front entrance of the hotel without a single witch seeing him. The entire scene jolted me out the film.
As did, alas, some of the puppet work. I’m generally inclined to give older films a pass on the special effects, but not here, largely because I’ve seen the work the Jim Henson Workshop did before this film, and, bluntly, they were capable of better. Part of the problem was the choice to work with both live mice and puppets, which just makes some of the puppet scenes more obviously, well, puppets, if rather realistic looking puppets. But some of the scenes, especially ones where either Bruno or Luke is falling, were just filmed terribly, and end up looking like bad puppets. Er. Not puppets gone evil or anything, just bad puppet work, edited in with shots of live mice, creating a distinctly disorienting and very fake effect.
The masks and makeup for the witches are considerably better done, with Anjelica Huston’s over the top transformation especially well done. That may also be because Anjelica Huston seems born for this role: she manages it all, from the haughtiness, the I cannot believe all of my witches are THIS INCOMPETENT to sipping tea. Evil from the moment she steps on screen, and yet managing to convey why no one other than two mice and a grandmother are calling her on this. Mai Zetterling as the grandmother is also excellent, especially in her early scenes where she tells her horror stories of witches in such a matter of fact tone, and her later horror and dismay when she learns that her grandson is now a mouse. And it’s quite fun to see Carson from Downton Abbey in a bit role as a cook.
But everyone else, alas, seems wasted, even usually reliable comedians Rowan Atkinson and Jane Horrocks. And although Roald Dahl greatly approved of the casting, he reportedly hated the ending, which was significantly changed from the book and doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Sure, I’m guessing that particular witch wanted a touch of revenge, but, you know, she should have gotten that from earlier scenes, and the setup for what happens is all wrong. I suspect, however, that the studio wanted a “happy” ending, not understanding that in this film, the original ending might have been the happier one. It seems an odd choice as well for a film that deliberately left in other disturbing bits from the book—the first story of the girl trapped in the painting, the later moments when Luke mouse gets his puppet tail chopped off. Since the audience has already endured that, why not let them have the end, where Dahl explains that sometimes, not everything in life can be fixed?
Perhaps the film creators felt that was the wrong message for their audience. But I’m not sure who the target audience for this film is—especially now in an improved CGI age. Portions—particularly the bits where the women turn into witches, and the bit where the cat chases little Luke mouse—are probably too scary for young children, while older children will probably be bored or distinctly unimpressed with some of the faker looking shots of the jumping mouse.
Initial reviews of The Witches were generally kind, possibly out of reverence for Jim Henson. But I have to say that as a whole, the film doesn’t hold up well. It might amuse some of your older kids for an evening, but otherwise, this is a film that can be skipped. Fortunately, this didn’t stop Hollywood from creating more adaptations of Dahl’s work.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where she remains in human form to prevent any additional complications with her two cats. Or so she claims.