"The Witches" is a wickedly funny final bow for Muppeteer Jim Henson (he was executive producer), yet it seems sure to scare the osh-by-gosh out of the sandbox set. Adapted from Roald Dahl's award-winning children's fantasy, it focuses on a 9-year-old boy's occult adventures in Norway and Northern England.
The tale begins one stormy night as Luke (Jasen Fisher) listens bewitched to his imaginative, nine-fingered granny's (Mai Zetterling) curious choice of bedtime conversation. "Real witches," warns Granny, "dress in ordinary clothes, live in ordinary houses and have ordinary jobs."
They can be distinguished from humans, however, by their purple eyes and sensible shoes, which they wear to hide their lack of toes. Witches also frequently scratch their pimply scalps, as they are allergic to the wigs they wear to conceal their bald heads. All witches hate children, "who smell like fresh dog droppings," adds Granny, tucking Luke into bed.
The next morning Luke wakes from a troubled sleep to learn that his parents have been killed in a car accident. He and Granny move to England, where she contracts diabetes and on doctor's orders goes to a seashore hotel to recuperate. Alas, their stay coincides with the British witches' convention, headed by her Grand Terribleness (Anjelica Huston), who immediately turns Luke into an adorable talking mouse. Now not only an orphan but a pest, the youngster perseveres.
Huston, the highlight, rides her broomstick over the top as the Grand High Witch, who appears in public as the altruistic Miss Ernst of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Without her wig and mask, she is a wart-faced hag with a garden hose nose, a magnificently imperious brew of Zsa Zsa Gabor, Snow White's stepmother, toil, trouble, eye of newt and bubble bubble.
Directed by Nicolas Roeg from Allan Scott's screenplay, the movie is beguiling in its way. And its hero is a worthy child, easily as likable as the kid in "My Life as a Dog." If fairy tales teach coping, then "Witches" gets a poisoned apple for a job well done.