This mostly terrific Roald Dahl adaptation is down to the fact that left-leaning British master Nicholas Roeg, the man responsible for Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth, is very much in tune with the devilish cunning of this black hued novel. Hence, its one of the best, and most unnoticed, of recent kid-scaring (and therefore kid pleasing) movies.
Screenwriter Allen Scott keeps most of Dahl’s flip folklore intact. As young hero Luke’s (a perky, likable Jasen Fischer) Norwegian grandmother (Mai Zetterling) explains, with scrumptious detail, witches loathe children, they can’t stand the smell of them, and they have square toes and wear masks to hide their real, hideous faces, landscapes of warts and wrinkles, enough to make any child squeal in revolted delight. It’s high adventure and high grot all round, squirreling about with humour and panache thanks to Roeg’s dead-on handling of the material.
Casting Anjelica Huston as the chief witch was a coup. With her mask on she’s slippery and sexy (and in a kids’ movie as well), full of wicked, vampy vim as she delivers those twinkling lines. It’s magnificent performance, a black-clad variation on that ultimate fusion of Lady Macbeth and Cruella De Ville that mature actresses surely crave. The special effects, mainly animatronics, that serve to transform young Luke into a mouse are pretty good and used to best effect (i.e. not allowing them to govern the film’s storytelling energy). And Roeg just keeps it buzzing along, equal parts funny and scary, ready to conclude in a near-operatic parade of pug-ugliness.