A Lot of Toil and Trouble
When it comes to "The Witches" I fear I am in the minority because I just don't get it or more importantly why so many people love this movie. I wouldn't go as far as saying it was terrible but I would say it was boring which is not what I expected to be saying about a movie which is based on a Roald Dahl book and features the puppet creations of Jim Henson. But being boring is not my only issue as "The Witches" has another more significant issue, here we have a children's tale, a creepy children's tale from the imaginative Roald Dahl but in adapting this tale to the big screen the darkness of the tale, the vileness of the witches borders on horror, horror which for me is not what I would show a young child. It is almost a case that director Nicolas Roeg has taken Allan Scott's adaptation of Dahl's story and tried to make it appeal to adults as well as children but in doing so making it feel unsure of who it's target audience is.
Shortly after Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher) becomes orphaned his Grannie (Mai Zetterling) takes him to England to live with her. When Grannie suffers from a bout of poor health they decide to go and stay at a hotel by the sea. But there is also a large group of women staying at the hotel, a group of women who are in fact witches and are there for their annual meeting where they leader the Grand High Witch (Anjelica Huston - A Handful of Dust) has a plan to kill all the children of Britain including Luke who finds himself in the midst of this mess.
Right from the opening I found myself wondering what sort of movie "The Witches" was going to be as it felt like I was watching a 70s European movie. And then there is the ominous side of this opening not just because Grannie Eveshim is telling Luke all about a young girl who was taken by a witch but we also get what happens to Luke's parent. It just feels very weird and in many ways quite dull, not what I was expecting in the slightest and it felt so wrong that I wondered if somehow I was watching a different movie than the one I expected.
I wasn't and after a few incidents we basically get to the main storyline where Luke and Grannie Eveshim are staying at a hotel in England which just so happens to be holding the yearly British Witches convention. Now what follows on from there is actually really simple, Luke discovers that the women at the conference are in fact witches in disguise, they turn him into a mouse and then he tries turn things around on them by giving them a dose of their own medicine, or in this case potion. It's a good enough story and there are some imaginative scenes be it the witches removing their guises when they get together to the kitchen scene as Luke tries to put poison in the soup.
But the thing is that it seems so unfocussed with simplicity and humour which will appeal to young children then an element of horror which seems to scary for young children. And it is a shame because all the individual components are good they just don't work together. The visual creations from Jim Henson Productions are great, the look of Eva when she removes her hair and mask is stunning but it is too scary for children. Yet the comedy of Luke spying on the witches, scampering through the kitchen as a mouse is the stuff which young children will enjoy. Throw in a whole 70s vibe and "The Witches" ends up being a mismatch and one which doesn't work.
Its saving grace, alongside the wonderful Henson creations, are the performances which are good through out even when half of the women who are meant to be witches are in fact men. But it is Anjelica Huston as the over the top Miss Eva Ernst / Grand High Witch which ends up delivering the majority of the movies best moments. Everything about her is just right from the accent to the over the top looks; it is what you expect from a movie based upon a Roald Dahl story, a strong character.
What this all boils down to is that "The Witches" didn't do it for me and in fact I hate to say it I was bored. But being boring is just part of the problem and for me "The Witches" suffers because it doesn't know it's audience, there is simple child friendly fun yet the horror elements of the witches is more than many young children would cope with and as such it doesn't get the blend right to appeal to both young and adult alike.