Most of "The Witches" (citywide), a dark, marvelous new fantasy movie and one of Muppetmeister Jim Henson's last film legacies, takes place in a forbiddingly staid Cornish seaside resort, where a convocation of truly ghastly witches have descended to plot the destruction of every last child in England.
These hags are bald, claw-fingered, no-toed and mean. And the meanest of them all is Anjelica Huston--or someone who seems to be Anjelica Huston--playing the Grand High Witch of the World, alias Eva Ernst of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
When this creature pulls off her Anjelica mask and displays her real features--warty, dragon-like, sprouting with tufts of hair and pullulating with evil--it's a great giddy shock. So is Huston's performance: a gem of strutting, swaggering monster camp, done with a sneering, Nazi commandant accent.
Eva E. projects such flamboyant evil that it seems nothing can withstand her, certainly not her main foes here: kindly old Norwegian "witchophile" Helga (wonderfully played by Swedish actress-writer-director Mai Zetterling) and her grandson Luke (Jasen Fisher) who, unfortunately, is turned into a sprightly brown mouse by Eva halfway through.
Huston, Zetterling, Bill Paterson and Rowan Atkinson as obnoxious guest and smug manager, are classy actors all. But it's the scenes of boy-turned-mouse Luke--skittering through the vast hotel, tunneling under hall carpets, clambering down balconies, eluding predatory pussy-cats, and finally, frantically, racing through the resort's furious kitchen to dose the witches' cress soup with mouse elixir--that make "The Witches" such a cockeyed delight.
Based on Roald Dahl's 1983 children's fantasy, executive produced by Henson and directed by Nicolas Roeg, it's the kind of literate, imaginative children's fantasy we see too rarely: the best of its kind since "Dreamchild" in 1985. Like "Dreamchild," it has puppets from Henson's Creature Shop and a mood both childlike and knowing, sophisticated and magical.
Real darkness seethes beneath the "Once upon a time" surface, mostly due to Henson's seemingly curious selection of the brilliant and audacious Roeg to direct and Allan Scott, Roeg's collaborator on "Don't Look Now," as scenarist. Curious? Roald Dahl, who is on record as despising the film, seemed an unlikely children's storyteller himself. He began as a specialist in urbane shock-tales of murder and perversity before writing his own successful children's books.
Forgetting the new, questionably "upbeat" ending, Roeg and Scott have served Dahl well, embellished him intelligently. Early on, in the sequence that uses the book's most brilliant visual conception--a little girl, imprisoned in a painting, where she grows old and dies--Roeg shows how deeply he connects with the material.
But what he's also done is put disturbing flesh on Dahl's fancies, visualize the witches with such revolting detail, and the mouse-eye view with such horrific vividness, that the movie takes on an unnerving pulse and threat. The setting becomes overwhelming, the evil palpable; Dahl's book with its light, ironic tone, candy-coated the fear. In a way, "The Witches" summons up other, scarier child-in-hotel horror movies, like Bergman's "The Silence" and Kubrick's' "The Shining," plus other Roeg movies where innocents are lost in perverse, dangerous worlds.
All this shouldn't be taken as a warning that this PG movie is too dark for most children. It's no grimmer than the Brothers Grimm, no deeper or richer than Hans Christian Andersen. What it shows, again, is the secret of Henson's vast appeal: his respect for children and their intelligence. Unlike many "adult" moviemakers, Henson believed his core audience capable of appreciating wit, irony, topical humor, idealism, intense emotion and bemused reflections on real life and all its complexity. All these, and more, are present in "The Witches."
A Warner Bros. release of a Lorimar Film Entertainment presentation of a Jim Henson production. Producer Mark Shivas. Director Nicolas Roeg. Script Allan Scott. Executive producer Jim Henson. Camera Harvey Harrison. Music Stanley Myers. Editor Tony Lawson. With Anjelica Huston, Mai Zetterling, Jasen Fisher, Bill Paterson, Rowan Atkinson, Brenda Blethyn.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).