Back in the day when I was still a wee one, one of my elementary school teachers read my class The Witches by Roald Dahl, after which, I took the film version out from the local library and became obsessed with it. Looking back, this was pretty unusual behavior for a child that otherwise was incredibly afraid of anything remotely scary, and this movie is definitely too terrifying for any child. I really thought I had been the only person who loved this movie as a kid until I started seeing it pop up on Twitter recently with photos of Anjelica Huston looking incredible in her black bodycon dress, blunt bob, and witchy eye makeup. It then occurred to me how unnerving it was that this movie was supposedly made for children. Upon re-watching it, the message is very clear that The Witches hates women, but it is still as absurd as ever with some incredible costuming and puppetry (no surprise there, as this was produced by Jim Henson).
The film opens with a grandmother named Helga (Mai Zetterling) telling her grandson Luke (Jasen Fisher) a story about a girl she once knew who was kidnapped by a witch and put into a painting for the rest of her life. The witches all wear wigs because they are bald, have no toes, and believe that clean children smell like dog droppings. Helga watches Luke for the night while he parents are out, but they wake in the morning to police at the door who tell them the parents have died in a crash. The pair mourn and pack to move back to England, where Helga is from. They room in a hotel by the sea after Helga is diagnosed with diabetes, where a convention is being held for The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the leader of which is very hot Anjelica Huston. If you couldn’t tell, the “society” is actually made up of witches, not just hoards of white women who like children a lot. The manager of the hotel is also Rowan Atkinson, to add more to the incredibly ridiculous given circumstances.
The majority of the film is composed of the meeting of the witches in a large ballroom that Luke follows them into. He hides and watches as the head witch conducts the gathering, which begins with her removing her prosthetics and wig to reveal a more witch-like older woman who has rotting skin and long fingers. Her look, though traditional to historical designs of witches, does, however, play into Jewish stereotypes in the same way as the goblins from Harry Potter: she has a hooked nose, and in this film, that’s evil. The rest of the witches have average white women faces, but this is a huge misstep and considering the anti-Semitic past of Roald Dahl. So let’s really hope the design in the reboot is an update from this outdated trope.
The head witch reveals a new plan to turn children into rats, which she has already done to another young boy in the hotel. The women are essentially foaming at the mouth while they watch young Bruno transform from boy into mouse. Before the convention is dismissed, they find Luke and transform him into a mouse as well. For the rest of the film, both boys are talking mouse puppets who are able to communicate with Helga to plot revenge against the witches. The puppets are expertly designed and the film teaches us to love the mice as if they are real children, even to the point where in the last scene Luke tells Helga “I like being a mouse.” Though the movie feels like it should be pronouncing a pro-child narrative, it is more like a pro-mouse narrative, which I am not against, but it is a choice.
Overall, the film, and the book for that matter, are not shy about condemning women who do not want children. The witches are all after one thing and that is to get rid of children without getting caught, and with the target audience being children, this is a pretty dangerous narrative. While we are made to root for cute little mice, a trope loved by young people everywhere, children are still picking up on the message that women are bad and they WILL harm you. There is a lesson to be found here that perhaps talking to strangers is a thing to watch out for, all the examples of strangers here are women who will try to lure you in with candy. In reality, the most common predator of children is someone they know, and it is more than likely that the predator is male. This is not to say that women strangers cannot be predators, but the movie does argue that actually, absolutely all of them will be.
As an adult, The Witches is a journey of twists and turns where we get to see a young Anjelica shine, but generally, the narrative presented is not so great for its intended audience. The movie is being remade for a 2021 release with a stellar new cast and crew, including Guillermo del Toro, so let’s all hope for a modern twist on one of the more odd stories for kids.