WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!
Poor Luke can’t catch a break. His American parents die in a car crash during a family trip to Norway. His grandmother collapses on his birthday in a diabetic coma after she gives him two mice. A literal witch tries to lure him out of a tree house with a poisonous snake. And, oh yeah, he spends the majority of this brilliant film as a mouse.
One of the many movies based on books by master storyteller Roald Dahl, The Witches is, much like Return to Oz which I reviewed last month, one of those children’s movies that’s downright frightening. I don’t know what it is about children’s movies, but since the beginning of children’s cinema—from when Snow White‘s Queen hires a man to cut out Snow’s heart up until Elsa an Anna’s parents die in a shipwreck—young protagonists are thrown into parentless, dire situations. I’d love to see a classic children’s movie in which the parents are fine, in which the children aren’t in real danger. Of course, there’d be no movie if that were the case.
Well, young Luke is in definite danger. But, even before we get to Luke’s storyline, one of the most frightening moments in The Witches happens at the very beginning, when Luke’s grandmother tells the story of her young, schoolgirl friend Erica who disappears from the streets of Norway at the hands of the Grand High Witch. Eventually, the girl reappears, but only (and disturbingly) in her parents’ oil painting. Trapped in the painting, we see the child age: first a young girl, then a woman, and finally a hunched-over hag who one day literally fades out of the picture.
From there, after his parents die, Luke, his grandmother, and his mice go to the English seaside for a holiday. There, woefully, a convention of witches is convening to discuss how to better kill the children of England. And in the first time I was ever introduced to her as an actress, Angelica Houston herself plays the Grand High Witch. She is the diva of all divas, only being out-eviled possibly by Maleficent. Angelica’s performance is dramatic and over-the-top, all things befitting a grand high witch who wants to turn British kids into mice so she can step on them. Adding to the magic, after Angelica takes off her face and scalp (yup, you read that right) the Grand High Witch is portrayed by a Jim Henson Creature Shop creation that is straight out of a child’s nightmare. It’s great, and I never thought a molded piece of polyurethane could out act Angelica Houston.
In a delightful cameo, Rowan Atkinson plays the befuddled hotel manager, wondering where and why all the women convening are itching their scalps, as he tries to rid the building of all the new mice scattering about. His facial expressions and physical performance are on perfect display. Also making a pre-fame appearance is Jane Horrocks who you’ll remember as the ever-idiotic Bubble from Britain’s greatest television program ever, Absolutely Fabulous.
Through the phenomenal storytelling of Roald Dahl, whose imaginative plots and premises are among my favorite in the whole world (I mean, come on, James and the Giant Peach?) The Witches moves pretty fast through a compelling narrative. While still maintaining its classic children’s movie edge, the journey Luke must go on to no longer be a mouse and save the children of England from a murderous witch is harrowing. He must overcome kitchens filled with knives and boiling pots of soup as well as the witches themselves who love nothing more then to stomp on the mouses, splattering their guts all over the floor. Those moments are just this side of wince-inducing, which makes them actually fun.
There are definitely some strange cuts in this movie. We move from Norway, to England, to the seaside pretty fast, but the delicious evilness and wicked witchery more than makes up for those awkward cuts. And I’m not the only one who feels this way either. In a very unprecedented score, The Witches is one of the few movies on Rotten Tomatoes to have a full 100% backing. I couldn’t agree more.