WARNING: Spoiler alert! Read the following Review at your own risk… I do reveal some plot details that you might want to avoid if you’re planning to watch the movie anytime soon.
Boy, I really wanted to like this film. I was so ready for it to be amazing. In the end, though, I have to say that I was ultimately disappointed. The movie got a lot of the details right, but it never really managed to capture the qualities that I liked so much in the book. For example, one of my favorite reviews of the book came from Erica Jong in the New York Times: “It is a curious sort of tale but an honest one, which deals with matters of crucial importance to children: smallness, the existence of evil in the world, mourning, separation, death.” Unfortunately I never felt the film lived up to this description of the story; it got too bogged down with special effects and meaningless subplots.
First, what I liked: Anjelica Huston. She was AWESOME. She wasn’t exactly what I had imagined as the Grand High Witch, but she comes as close to it as humanly possible, I think. Unfortunately I think her “scary” face might be a little too intense for small children… The Henson makeup and prosthetic people really went to town on her.
Other things I liked: Bruno and his parents. Bruno could have been a little meaner (they tried to make him almost a sympathetic character), but he was quite satisfactorily grubby. I also liked the hotel itself; it was a perfect location. The set piece of the film – the witches’ secret meeting – was also very true to the book. Luke’s hiding place in the corner, the set-up of the room, the meeting itself – everything was exactly as I had envisioned it.
Specific things I didn’t like: They gave the hero a name! Granted, it’s easier for me to talk about “Luke” than a nameless protagonist, but I always thought it was very interesting that Dahl specifically chose to not give him a name. Another thing: the Grandmother was too… well, human. In the book she seems mysterious and larger than life; in the movie she’s just a normal grandma who happens to know some scary stories.
Other things: I liked that they included the story of the little girl who gets trapped in a painting, but I wanted to see some of the others as well. Like Harald, who gets turned into stone. Or the child who turns into a dolphin. I also wanted more of the “characteristics” of witches – the spit being blue, the hands having claws, etc. Instead they seem to reduce it all down to having purple eyes and a bald head.
And the biggest travesty of all: Luke gets turned BACK into a boy! I used to love the fact that the boy/mouse would live just as long as the grandmother and that they wanted nothing more than to live and die together. Instead they add in the weird subplot about the Grand High Witch’s assistant (who is the phenomenally talented Jane Horrocks, though). What the heck happens at the end? Is she just so mad about being mistreated that she decides to become a “good” witch? It seems so fake and added-on.
Okay, so ultimately I thought the special effects were good, but many times they bordered on scary and disturbing (especially the “turning-into-mice” process). Many of the plot and setting details were right on, but overall the deviations from the book really detracted from my enjoyment of the movie. It’s like the producers and director got too caught up in the actual “action” and didn’t pay enough attention to the feelings and mood of the story.
FINAL GRADE: B+