Thursday, August 20, 2015

80s Revisited: The Witches

The Witches (1990)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg; screenplay by Allan Scott; produced by Jim Henson, Mark Shivas & Dusty Symonds.

I've had a nice memory of going to see this in the theater when I was about 14. It was released not too long after Jim Henson died, and was the last project he actively worked on before his death, so I know I was a little emotional about it. I remember liking it and seeing it a few more times over the next year or two, but I hadn't seen it since.

Turns out, it's a perfectly charming film. What's interesting now is just how much it feels like a Jim Henson movie; it's very much like a feature-length version of one of the short films he was putting on The Jim Henson Hour at the time, like Lighthouse Island. It also stands as a testament to how much he wanted to just tell good stories rather than just put on showcases for puppetry and effects; there are surprisingly few puppets in the story at all, and most of the scenes with them occur during the second half of the story.

The movie starts with a lesson in witch-lore, with Luke (Jasen Fisher, who was also in Parenthood and Hook) being told all about witches by his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling), whose childhood friend was spirited away by witches and put inside a painting in one of the saddest and creepiest scenes in this movie. After Luke's parents die in a car accident, he and Helga relocate to England, and take a seaside holiday at a nice hotel when Helga's diabetes begins to make her unwell. And while there, the hotel is also hosting a convention of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which is itself a front for the witches of England.

One of the things I love about this movie is just how frank it is about witches; it lays out what they are, the rules of the behavior and how they can be identified, and it never breaks from that just to jerk the audience around. It's not really played as supernatural and outside the bounds of reality that witches are crawling around and hunting children in every country. Witches exist, and that's all there is to it, so let's just get on with the story. The movie has a confidence about its material that is sadly rare in children's movies.

Anjelica Huston plays the Grand High Witch, and is absolutely wonderful. She seems to be having a ball playing an unrepentantly sadistic child-hunter, with her German accent and bright, glowing eyes. There's also a reveal of the witch without her human mask on which is fantastic; one of the highlights of the Creature Shop's work on the movie.

The makeup was designed by Stephen Norrington, who was also a creature designer on Jim Henson's The Storyteller and had worked on Aliens. He would go on to work on Alien 3 and direct Blade.

The Grand High Witch has created a formula to turn the children of the UK into mice, and demonstrates it by turning Luke and another boy, Bruno Jenkins, into mice. And the mice... well, here are the mice.

The mice are so cute I wanted to die. Or as my wife put it: "Luke is so cute he makes Stuart Little look like Freddy Krueger."

I was really, really impressed by the puppetry involved with creating the mice, and how well the editing blended them together with real mice. It's almost as sophisticated as the work the Creature Shop would later win an Academy Award for in Babe.

My favorite aspect of the movie is the matter-of-factness with which Luke accepts being turned into a mouse. He goes to Helga for help defeating the witches, and when Helga asks what's happened, Luke says, very earnestly, "She turned me into a mouse." He never panics, he never despairs, he just gets on with it in a very English sort of way (although Fisher is clearly American, but never in an insistent way; he's pretty perfectly cast, without the affectations of a lot of child actors and with round glasses that make him look attentive and engaged instead of disaffected, like a lot of kids... Jim Henson had a knack for casting interesting kids).

I really, really liked this movie. This is the tone I wish more kid's movies would have. Of course, I'm 39, and kid's movies aren't made for me anymore, but I like movies like this that can put me in touch with what I last truly felt what seems like a long, long time ago. I didn't have an easy time as a child, and the movies that made me forget about that... well, it's nice that sometimes you see them and they remind you that you once could.

The film is based on a Roald Dahl novel which I've not read. It was the last Dahl adaptation in his lifetime; he and Jim Henson both passed away in 1990. He didn't like the movie, but he did like Anjelica Huston.

I found this movie magical. Nice to see the magic is still there.

Thank you, Jim.

No comments: