Smith’s Verdict: ***
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
Kids often have that feeling that the grownups are out to get them, and in “The Witches,” the children have much to fear from the women of the world—particularly those with gloves and purple eyes. As an elderly woman tells her grandson (and as a result, the audience) a story about real witches, they apparently look like real people walking the streets. If you look closely at them, you can see the purple haze in their eyes. They have square feet, so they wear plain, ordinary shoes. And whenever a witch is near a child, she often holds her nose, since clean children have a distinct odor.
They’re out to destroy every child in the world. And they’re everywhere, in every country.
The story is told early on in Nicolas Roeg’s “The Witches,” based on Roald Dahl grim children’s story of the same name, as the Norwegian grandmother, Helga (Mai Zetterling), tells her American grandson, Luke (Jasen Fisher), all she knows about witches. When she was a little girl, her friend was taken by a witch and imprisoned in a painting until her image aged, withered and vanished. (Helga kept seeing her image move as years went by. She also lost a finger due to an encounter with a witch.)
That’s a very chilling opening sequence, told in flashback and with effective atmosphere, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which is like a well-told children’s bedtime story that would probably scare little kids and give them nightmares. But I think kids like to be scared (or else they wouldn’t go out for Halloween or watch scary movies that their parents forbid them to) and “The Witches” would probably delight them. Though, granted, some of them might want to prepare themselves first, as there are some disturbing elements in this movie.
Helga takes Luke on a vacation to England, where they stay in a fancy hotel. At this particular hotel is where all of the witches of England have an annual secret meeting, including the Grand High Witch, the most dangerous, fearsome one of them all. These witches pose as a children’s charity group hosting a convention at the hotel. They’re led by Miss Ernst (Anjelica Huston, having a lot of fun playing the role), a tall, striking woman with a distinctive manner and accent that lets us know immediately that she can’t be trusted. She is indeed the Grand High Witch, as Luke realizes as he stumbles upon the witches’ meeting and overhears their secrets, as well as their secret plan. Their plan is to use a magic formula to hide in sweets—when children eat them, they are transformed into mice.
Luke is discovered (a little too late, conveniently—I thought they would’ve smelled him earlier, since witches have a keen sense of smell) and he is forcibly turned into a mouse (a talking mouse too—OK, maybe it’s a little too convenient now). Luckily, he’s able to convince his grandmother who he really is, and so they come up with an idea to stop the witches before they carry out their plot.
The late Jim Henson produced “The Witches”. He and his special-effects crew bring their genius and talent to work in the sequences in which Luke, in mouse form, and his friend Bruno (Charlie Potter), also turned into a mouse, run about gigantic pieces of furniture and, even in close-ups, are able to make us believe that they really are talking mice with specific actions to perform. For kids, this is a fun adventure to take with the boy-mouse, and for adults, it’s an interesting visual look that impresses. It’s the best of both worlds.
It’s here that “The Witches” turns into a romp and loses of its tenseness that was set up in the aforementioned opening scene. But it is a good deal of fun, and it’s hardly predictable, as we can’t exactly see how everything will play out. It’s also a race against time, which makes things more exciting for the final act of the movie.
I admire how grim Nicolas Roeg made “The Witches” to be, given that it’s a family film that could have been played relatively safe. While it has a certain sensibility to it, the implications of the story are very grim and the imagination contains what could become or what might have become. If there is one problem, it’s probably the ending, but this is coming from someone who has read the book. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say some kids may enjoy a happy ending after all the grim stuff is over with. Mostly though, “The Witches” is quite fascinating.