Freaking Roald Dahl.
This article could be focused on any of a few potential rants about this writer. It is no secret that children’s authors always seem to end up being very . . . difficult people (for lack of a better term), and in a way, Dahl was to Henson what Travers was to Disney. I could just give Dahl a hard time for being a pain to poor Jim, but that’s not good for a review. I could instead choose the more obvious rant about how awful it is to make a profession out of terrifying children, but the problem with that is simply that children sometimes like to be scared. I think it was Walt Disney who said, when accused of making the villains in his animated films to scary, that children enjoy it if they can peek through their parents’ fingers. For this reason, I am not against putting a good scare in a children’s film.
My bone to pick with Dahl is a problem with a particular type of scare that is not necessarily limited to stories for children (although that is the genre in which it’s most common): The Awkward Terror. The Awkward Terror is what I call those moments when there is a misunderstanding concerning the way one should respond to a bad scenario, but rather than making it into awkward comedy, it’s played as horror. Don’t get me wrong – discomfort has an important place in storytelling: when done in comedy, it leads to the awkward realization that the character forgot to wear pants, and when done in drama, it leads to a good scare when the shadow of a man with a knife is on the shower curtain. However, when an uncomfortably awkward situation (one in which people can’t figure out how to respond appropriately) meets the uncomfortably chilling spook, I have found that the different types of enjoyment that come from these discomforts cancel each other out, leaving me only uncomfortable with no element of fun.
Now it’s example time. In an episode of R. L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour, a boy finds himself in a circus tent dressed as a clown, unable to remove his makeup or attire. As several other clowns surround the boy (who has always had a fear of clowns) he finds his parents there, and rather than displaying the appropriate response of feeling bad for him, they gleefully take off their human disguise to reveal that the boy and his family have always been members of the clown species. This is terribly awkward as there is no comprehensible response to someone realizing he’s turned into a clown, just as I would not know how to react if someone standing in front of me were to suddenly become a fruit. There is no reaction to such a bizarre, unnatural phenomenon, and one would be foolish to expect people to enjoy seeing a spectacle like someone turning into a fruit.
Roald Dahl is stupid enough to turn someone into a fruit. Not in The Witches, of course, but in his more famous book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which Violet memorably becomes a giant blueberry. If everyone in the scene responded with sheer terror and tried to save her right away, perhaps the scene could have worked better, but the way people just stand there confusedly as Wonka remains calm and the Oompa Loompas sing in a circle around her makes me squeamish to this day. Not in a fun, spooky way – in a way that’s just nauseating. This is the kind of thing Dahl does often that rubs me the wrong way, so I should have known I would dislike the film adaptation of his book that’s practically an ode to the Awkward Terror, The Witches.
Imagine if a whole movie was centered around something as awkward as a person turning into a fruit, but instead of being in a setting of fantasy (in which it might almost be permissible), it’s set in a realistic, normal, everyday place. That is what Witches is all about: a boy goes to a hotel where he is turned into a mouse. When different characters see these mice that used to be the boys they loved, their reactions are inevitably incorrect no matter what they are since there cannot be a realistic reaction to such an intangible scenario, which is a clear sign that this whole concept should have been avoided altogether. It makes the entire film both uncomfortable and unbelievable, without offering a strong plot, strong characters, strong dialogue, or strong morals to make up for it.
To get to the point of this review, the film is a waste of time. It seems that there are some Henson productions that Muppet fans joke about because of how odd they are, and others that we simply do not address. Although this is the last film for which Henson was a producer of any sort, he’d had so little involvement in the story that he couldn’t save it, so we Henson fans honestly never give it as much thought as we give The Jim Henson Hour, or even his failed Little Mermaid series. I cannot fathom how anyone could enjoy a film so tedious that it doesn’t get to its inciting incident until halfway through the running time, so dull that it makes Rowan Atkinson’s character a bore, and so idiotic in theme that I cannot believe it was ever released. If this flick is watched for any reason, it should be watched for the puppetry, effects, and other excellent elements of the visual style that make this film wickedly impressive as visual art (which is what earned the film as many stars as I’ve given it). While critics may praise it on the grounds that it will give children quite a scare, I berate it because it offers a big scare instead of a good scare. If a movie wants to scare people, it should make sure the emotion it’s grabbing is fear, not disgust.