Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 15, 2019)
Adapted from Roald Dahl’s 1983 novel, 1990’s The Witches introduces us to young Luke Eveshim (Jasen Fisher). While his family visits Norway, his parents die in a car crash and his grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) immediately becomes his guardian.
The pair move to England and take up residence at a hotel. There Luke befriends Bruno Jenkins (Charlie Potter) and the pair decide to “stalk” a convention of women in the area.
However, Luke and Bruno don’t encounter ordinary ladies. Instead, the find a convention of witches, ones who seek to eradicate all children.
When Grand High Witch Eva Ernst (Anjelica Huston) discovers the boys, she turns Luke into a mouse. In this altered form, he needs to find a way to halt the witches’ evil plans and also get back to his normal species.
Best-known for artsy adult-oriented fare like Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, Nicholas Roeg feels like an odd choice to direct children’s fare like Witches. There’s a good reason for this belief: Roeg is a bad choice, one who brings little to this film.
Like other Dahl works, Witches offers an acerbic morality tale, and it needs a wicked wit to succeed. Roeg shows no flair for the comedic side of the production and makes the film plodding where it should sizzle.
Pacing becomes an issue, as the movie tends to move at a slow rate. Perhaps I shouldn’t blame Roeg, as his Witches seems to stick pretty closely to the source.
Page and screen are different, of course, and this material fails to translate especially well – at least in Roeg’s hands. Moments that should crackle tend to fall flat and seem dull here.
Like some other Dahl works, Witches doesn’t boast much of a plot, but the other films come with enough adventure to sustain the audience. That doesn’t occur here, as the limited seaside setting and the small roster of roles restricts matters.
It doesn’t help that Witches comes with fairly lackluster characters. Beyond Eva, none of them seem memorable or fun.
Witches does offer a good cast, as we find reasonably well-known performers like Brenda Blethyn and Rowan Atkinson in addition to those already named. Outside of Huston, we don’t get particularly vivid work from them, though, so they become part of the movie’s general blandness.
Fisher seems like the weakest link. While a likable kid, he shows no skills beyond a broad sense of cuteness, and that’s not enough to carry the film.
Maybe The Witches simply isn’t as good a story as other Dahl works, and the filmmakers did the best they could. Whatever the case, this turns into a surprisingly lifeless fantasy tale.