There’s been the very occasional decent remake over the years, like 1978’s Invasion Of The Body Snatchers or David Cronenberg’s The Fly, but 99% of the time they’re a pointless waste of time and an insult to the original. Which is definitely the case with the 2020 take on Roald Dahl’s The Witches, and there was no need to try and make a modern, better version as Nic Roeg’s film is so delightfully weird and strange and deserving of an enormous amount of love and acclaim.
After being told that witches exist and all of their habits by his Grandmother Helga (Mai Zetterling) in what is an exquisite example of how to drop a sod load of exposition without it feeling clumsy or forced, young lad Luke (Jasen Fisher) soon meets a whole bunch of witches when he and Helga take a break by the coast where the annual get together of supernatural types just happens to be occurring. Eavesdropping on their meeting, Luke discovers that grand high witch Miss Ernst (Anjelica Huston) has an evil plan where she intends to fund hundreds of sweet shops, all of which will carry chocolate and candy that has been covered in a secret formula and the children who eat it will be turned in to mice. This is all because witches hate children apparently, mainly because they smell like “Fresh dogs droppings”, and soon Luke and fellow child Bruno are all kinds of squeaky and running around the hotel causing chaos.
The first half hour of the film carefully introduces this unusual world and also makes Luke sympathetic by killing off his parents, before placing all of the key players in one location. After that it doesn’t let up and is an absolute riot as Luke and Bruno dash around all over the place, sure, when we see the mice puppets chat it looks like they’ve been dead for a couple of weeks but that only makes the whole thing more amusing, and the ending is beautifully orchestrated chaotic madness. Upon seeing the film Roald Dahl was “appalled” by “the vulgarity, the bad taste” and “actual terror” in certain scenes, but I think he was unaware of how much children can cope with when watching films, and it’s also what makes the film so special. As with all of the best children’s movies, and Dahl’s writing, it doesn’t talk down or patronise its audience, and is instead just a fast paced romp filled with funny dialogue and hilarious action scenes. Perhaps the make up for Angelica Huston’s Grand Witch might disturb a very young child, but other than that Dahl’s claims are baseless as it’s such a enjoyable deranged movie that no one would really take seriously.
Jasen Fisher isn’t the most natural child actor and Charlie Potter as Bruno Jenkin comes across like a young Alan Partridge, but otherwise the cast are superb, and as well as Huston and Zetterling as the lead adults there’s able support from the likes of Rowan Atkinson (who gets a strangely charming romantic subplot with one of the waitresses), Jim Carter and Jane Horrocks, while Bill Paterson and Brenda Blethyn as Bruno’s parents are nicely over the top too, especially when they discover Bruno’s fate.
The very final scene differs from Dahl’s book and adds an unneeded happy ending, and I’m not convinced that there shouldn’t have been a caption reading “Several hundred mice and one cat were harmed during the making of this film” at the end. But otherwise I’ve no complaints at all, it’s beautifully designed and shot film, and a deliciously unhinged movie, whoever decided that it needed to be remade needs to be locked up in a psychiatric ward this very instance, as why they thought they could improve on one of the best ever children’s films is beyond me.