Dark, Frightening, and Highly Recommended
JLFM - wrote on 10/20/13
Many children have grown up reading the work of Roald Dahl, and I was no exception. To this day, The Witches remains my favorite book by the prolific children's author, being more frightening, creepy, and wickedly twisted than any book I had read at the time. The movie manages to convey these traits of the book (sometimes better, sometimes worse), but in a manner that could potentially traumatize younger children. In other words, The Witches doesn't hold back on being as dark as it needs to be- that is, until the unfortunate twist at the end that Dahl himself spoke publicly against.
As explained in the film, witches appear to be normal, and harmless-looking woman, but that's what makes them so hard to spot. Witches hate children, and will do anything to get rid of them. Few are aware of the existence of witches. One of these few are an elderly lady named Helga, grandmother of a young boy named Luke, whom she now cares for, as Luke's parents have died. But things get interesting when Luke stumbles upon a meeting composed of witches (quite by accident), and is subsequently turned into a mouse.
The Witches, even to someone like me who has read the book, feels like something completely new and original. The set designs are clever, the cinematography is unique (if a little clumsy at times), and while some bits might seem a little dated for some, the dark charm The Witches possesses cannot be ignored.
Does this film have problems? Well, yes, but most of these would involve comparisons between the book and the film, which leads to tiresome nit-picking, so I'll try to avoid detailing this.
However, I must briefly address the ending (though I will not spoil anything), which differs dramatically from the book, and all but destroys the tone the film was going for. The Witches strives for darkness and frights. So much so that The Witches really does push the PG envelope. In fact, I think the ending is all that saved it from getting the PG-13 it probably deserved. And it's because the ending is so absurdly happy, as something occurs that perfectly wraps up the film, and makes everything all right, and this is not how it should be at all.
The ending for the book was perfect, and the only reason this change could be considered necessary, is to insure that children won't find themselves further disturbed by the book's non-typical ending. But the content before this ending is so un-friendly to children, this change didn't need to be made. This is the equivalent of running a marathon, only to give up a few steps away from the finish line.
Ending aside, The Witches boasts some truly terrifying visuals (at least, terrifying for a family film), and some surprisingly grim moments. But that's the beauty of it; it's a dark, horrifying film, disguised as a movie for families. This is exactly the kind of adaption that a Roald Dahl book deserves, and I'm sure Dahl would've loved this movie had it not been for the ending.
Child actors usually get a bad rap, and while Jasen Fisher as Luke is completely inoffensive, his performance also doesn't require much depth. For most of the film, Luke is a mouse, and even before Luke is turned into a mouse, his screen presence is limited- at least for a main character.
Anjelica Huston's performance as the Grand High Witch is solid, though her spotlight is stolen by her purposefully grotesque appearance. Whether this is the result of a mask, prosthetics, or special effects, the make-up job is fantastic. Also notable is Mai Zetterling as Luke's grandmother, and Rowan Atikson as a hotel manager- both actors are solid in their roles.
The score, composed by Stanley Myers, enhances the film (especially during its more suspenseful moments), but it's completely forgettable. There's not a single musical moment I can recall, which is unfortunate.
The Witches a fresh, and wickedly entertaining production, but it certainly won't appeal to everyone. Some of the campier aspects of the film will certainly bother some audiences (for example, I'm certain that at least a half-dozen of the witches were actually male), while children will likely be scared spit-less by some of the more frightening images. But fans of the book should enjoy themselves (while nit picking throughout), and those in the mood for an offbeat, darker-themed fantasy should find themselves immensely satisfied.
If only it weren't for that ending...