Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. This week we honor a birthday girl (Jesse’s wife Raechel, who I would like to say here, on the internet, IS NOT MY SISTER SO EVERYONE STOP ASKING*) by watching a favorite film from her childhood. And, as usual, I am too much of a curmudgeon to be nice to stuff made for kids.
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Good screenplay—until the end, at least—by Allan Scott (D.A.R.Y.L.) from the brilliant children’s book by Roald Dahl. Perfectly adequate—if surprisingly flat—direction by acclaimed director and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth). Jim Henson executively produced—is that even right? Acting by Mai Zetterling (nothing we’re familiar with) as the grandmother and Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) as a hotel manager, hackting by child actors Jasen Fisher and Charlie Potter, juicy bit parts for Jane Horrocks (Bubble on Absolutely Fabulous) and Brenda Blethyn (Saving Grace, Mrs. Bennett in the ‘05 Pride and Prejudice film), and scenery-chewing awesomeness by Anjelica Huston (The Grifters, The Addams Family).
Quote: “I smell… dogs’ droppings?!”
Alternate quote: “Witches spend their time plotting to kill children, stalking the wretched child like a hunter stalks a bird in the forest.”
Quote that Molly’s husband John imitates to terrify/infuriate Molly: “Vitches verk only vith magic!”
First viewing by Raechel: As a young child at my grandmother’s house.
First viewing by Jesse: In the theatre, which would put me at 8 years old.
First viewing by Molly: Days of goddamned yore, I tell you. On VHS/Cable. Not sure if I saw the whole thing, but I’m sure I saw the ending scene where they destroy the dining room of the hotel, and the terrifying rat thing the Grand High Witch becomes.
Most recent viewing by all concerned: Last week.
Impact on Raechel’s childhood development: Crucial. Before I was old enough to stay home by myself, my dad would drop me off at my grandmother’s house every Saturday on his way to work. And every Saturday, we would rent a movie to watch together. I chose this one pretty much every time it was my turn to pick. Oddly enough, I was never really into witches. They never struck me as particularly threatening. Likewise, I’ve never been into films that feature talking animals. But god, did I love this movie, and to this day I have no idea why.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Moderate. Like all of Dahl’s children’s stories, The Witches informed my worldview pretty heavily, and the film was a good adaptation in my book. It wasn’t my favorite story of his, however, and in the result I somehow never re-watched the movie over the years even though I did keep my eyes out for square-shoed women.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Moderate. The book was incredibly influential, but the movie I found entrancing yet pandering by virtue of the ending (yes, even as a kid). I never re-watched it.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Raechel’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I was a little worried about this one, as I usually am when gearing up to re-watch something that I haven’t seen since the 90’s. The last time I did this the film in question was Con Air, and I have yet to live that one down. I’m also typically not into children’s movies, probably because I’m the least imaginative person ever, so I was concerned I might be bored.
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect, it being so long since I had seen it that all I could recall was the basic story and my childhood fondness for it. As this project is fast confirming, that is quite often a recipe for pain. I knew Huston would be game for some camp, at least, and as it was expressly a children’s film I was willing to cut it a little more slack than some of the other films.
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I wasn’t sure what to expect, either. My memories of watching it are so limited. . . I remember asking my mom if the mice puppets were real mice, and if so, why they were cuter than regular mice. I also remember being alarmed by the nudity of the boy-child at the end. I was worried that, as with, say, The Dark Crystal, or, better (in that we’ll actually be doing it for Films of High Adventure) The Last Unicorn film, what was engaging enough for me as a kid would seem not as grand as a grown-up-ish person.
Raechel’s thoughts post-viewing: Holy Shit. Talking animals notwithstanding, The Witches is still pretty friggin’ rad. I had forgotten a few of the highlights of this film, most of which revolve around Anjelica Huston being batshit insane. I think my new favorite thing in the world is the scene wherein, after feeding a horrible, gluttonous child some candy infused with her transform-you-into-a-mouse potion, she gyrates sexily for far longer than anyone could ever be comfortable with. I’m also not sure what’s more disgusting: the scene wherein all of the witches eat the poisoned soup and turn into mice themselves, or the previous scene, wherein the child-turned-mouse hero runs around the hotel kitchen getting his ratty germs all over the food. Both are Grossout City as far as I’m concerned, and I am concerned, because The Witches is pretty much awesome.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: A solid children’s movie, with enough weird shit and adventure to satisfy even the most discerning ten year old. Aside from the weak-out ending, I was impressed by the faithfulness to Dahl’s dark tone and humor—qualities that will endear it to actual children instead of frightening them away. Dahl understood that kids can handle, and indeed, often desire, a stronger brew than is usually offered their way when it comes to entertainment, and it seems the filmmakers were on Dahl’s page for much of the film.
For non-kiddie viewers who won’t be as enthralled by the endless fat jokes directed at old Bruno Jenkins there’s still Anjelica Huston, who is having the time of her life. Like a lot of actors who earned their chops in serious roles, Huston seems to really relish the opportunity to go over the top in front of the camera for a children’s film—even the Addams Family movies featured her in a restrained role, whereas here she’s able to camp out like Tim Curry crossed with Cabaret.
In the reading-too-much-into-things department, I got a kick out of the fact that Dahl named one of the kids who is turned into a mouse Bruno Jenkins—Bruno being “Brown,” and “Brown Jenkin” being the terrible human-faced rat-thing that serves as a familiar in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Synchronicity or was Dahl a fan? We’ll never know, just as most will never care.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Well, I dunno. Part of me says back off, this is a kids’ movie. The rest of me says, what the fuck, I always poop on people’s childhoods in these, so who cares?
I think it’s fair to say I’m more acquainted with the book than either Jesse or Raech. It was second only to Matilda during my childhood Dahl obsession and I read it a million times; I think that sort of crippled my enjoyment at times. Where the film stayed faithful I thought it did a good-to-serviceable job; where it deviated, it kinda annoyed me. For example, the beginning, where they’re in Norway and the grandma tells the story of the girl who was put into a painting by a witch, yes yes yes. Good stuff, that. Completely spooky and taken directly from Dahl’s text.
Later on, though, I got all nerd-nettled when whoever wrote the script clearly wasn’t paying attention to the beginning part of the film. To wit: we learn that witches are quite stealthy and never get caught because they are subtle and demonic creatures. Cool, makes sense, right? But then, when all the witches get together and have their annual meeting, instead of having an orderly and quietly sinister meeting where they decide to dispatch all the children in England with sweets that turn kids into mice, we go irrevocably into Kids’ Movie Territory. And, fine, I KNOW THIS IS A KIDS’ MOVIE, but still! A chase sequence involving the Grand High Witch pushing a baby in a pram down a hillside? It makes no sense within the world of the film! Subtle and stealthy? No one will notice pram-pushing, for sure! Then there’s the completely destroyed conference room left by the witches in the wake of their meeting in a big, famous seaside hotel. Well! I suppose most of the meetings of organizations with names like The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children usually leave their meeting halls looking like it’s been hard day at WWE’s Chair-Testing Laboratory. Sure! No further investigation needed.
My quibbles with The Witches are essentially my quibbles with all books-turned-film. I am fine with deviations from source texts as long as they are sensible and apropos. Also, if you’re going to make characters different, make them more awesome, not less. In the book, the Grandma character is an ex-witch hunter and fucking rad: she smokes cigars, tells kids terrifying stories, and in her youth apparently went around the world murdering demons. Why why why was the decision made to make her, instead, “somebody’s grandma?” Why not exploit her witch-hunter past? I loved the horrifying sub-plot where Mr. Bean the hotel manager is having an affair with a maid (only to dump her when he discovers patches of mouse fur growing on her body—awesome). That’s the sort of inappropriately risqué humor Dahl would’ve appreciated. All the other stuff mentioned above comes across to me as curiously lifeless “hilarity.” Like, you know, the difference between all the scenes in LOTR where the hobbits are hobbiting out—knocking down Boromir while he teaches them to fight, cool. Cooking bacon on Weathertop and thus attracting the ring wraiths? Awesome. Having Aragorn knocked off a hilltop by a raging hyena so that his horse can make out with him and Liv Tyler can breathe heavy and look weepy some more? NOT AWESOME.
So yeah, I just took a kids’ movie to task. I just. . . like I said, all I remembered was the ending with all the gross witches turning into gross mice, and that was awesome. We started out in Norway, and it was awesome. But the middle of the film just killed it for me. I think it’s because Dahl did not write idiot-plot books, and the scriptwriter kinda turned this into an idiot-plot movie.
High Points: The parts that are faithful to the book, such the witchy backstory at the beginning. The Grand High Witch’s makeup. Anjelica Huston having the time of her life. Check her out in this clip, where she manages to be even more over the top when she drops the witch make-up and vamps out on old Bruno Jenkins:
Final Verdict: A mixed bag for Molly, who is maybe grumpier about this than it really warrants, and a fun time out for Jesse and Raechel.
Next Week: After hating on everyone else’s childhood Molly gets to hate on her own with Tank Girl.
*I’m sure Raechel would be a pretty awesome sister to have; she’s simply not mine. But we literally cannot leave the house together without being asked by at least one person if we’re related.