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Review: The Witches (1990)

The Witches (1990)

Directed by: Nicolas Roeg

Premise: Based on the book by Roald Dahl. A boy discovers an organization of evil witches and must foil their plot to destroy the world’s children. When he is found out, the witches turn the boy into a mouse.

What Works: There is a false assumption often made about family films that because they are made with young people and their parents in mind that they must be inoffensive trifles that don’t deal with any kind of weighty subject matter. Some family filmmakers buy into that and make pictures like Ice Age and Madagascar that validate the assumption. But quite often the best family movies, as with any genre, are pictures that deal with substantive themes. The Witches is one of those films and it tells a fantastic story in which a boy discovers that there is evil in the world and that it must be confronted. The film has a smart setup as a coven of witches has gathered at a hotel under the auspices of a child abuse prevention organization while they are actually scheming to eliminate the children of the world. This premise makes the film implicitly subversive and that kind of awareness and intelligence is one of The Witches most distinct qualities. By making the witches of the film predatory characters who mix with the institutions of polite society the film makes a quiet but unmistakable comment about the pervasiveness of evil. The filmmakers’ dealings with evil are impressive as the film demonstrates a willingness to push boundaries that aren’t often broached in a family film. As a piece of cinema, The Witches is very accomplished. This film was produced by Muppet creator Jim Henson and it has some great puppetry and make up effects. When the boy is turned into a mouse the film uses a combination of puppets and live animals and the effect is nearly seamless. This is all the more impressive because talking animals in movies often look ridiculous but the filmmakers manage to make it work. The makeup effects are very frightening and the film includes impressive scenes of transformations and other magical events. Anjelica Huston is cast as the leader of the witches and she gives a high energy performance that is easily the best thing in the film. 

What Doesn’t: The Witches is surprisingly tough in places. The makeup effects, which are very well done, are quite creepy and the film includes a few sudden moments of violence that are likely to startle adult viewers as well as their children. These aren’t faults of the film. The scares and violence are consistent with the tone and it is less intense than other PG-rated movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark but this may be something that parents wish to consider before selecting The Witches for family viewing. The Witches has other problems with regard to its filmmaking. The cinematography improves considerably in the second half, but the first half of The Witches is a little slow and the filmmakers sometimes chose awkward angles or clunky camera moves that obscure the action. The Witches also includes an unfortunate coda sequence that wraps the film on an unnecessarily happy ending. The conclusion is different from Dahl’s book but the change from the source material is not the problem. The ending of The Witches comes across as superfluous and pandering; it is known that the filmmakers shot two possible endings and went with the conclusion that scored higher with test audiences. That compromise is obvious, it hurts the film’s integrity, and ends The Witches on a false note.

DVD extras: None

Bottom Line: Despite being a little rough around the edges, The Witches is a well made fantasy picture. This is a film that has fallen out of the public consciousness but it is worth revisiting.

Episode: #409 (October 14, 2012)