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The Underrated Fantasy-Comedy Film That's Crushing It On Netflix

Author Roald Dahl is one of those children's writers whose books have been adapted to the screen an almost incalculable number of times. The BFG and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have each been adapted twice. Whether it's animated films like James and the Giant Peach or Fantastic Mr. Fox or the live-action classic Matilda, Dahl's works have an indelible mark on the history of children's movies. And films based on Dahl's work bring in stars — both in front of and behind the camera — as big as Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, Gene Wilder, and Johnny Depp

It shouldn't surprise you that on Netflix, Roald Dahl continues his decades-long run of popularity. Recently, one of Dahl's stories cracked the top ten most viewed films on the service, and it's one you might not have heard of: the Jim Henson-produced dark fantasy The Witches.

The Witches, in short, is a movie about a few children who accidentally discover that witches are real and get turned into mice for their trouble. But there's a lot more to The Witches than that.

What makes The Witches so interesting?

The Witches is considered to be a box office dud, even though it made $10 million from a $2.2 million budget (source: Box Office Mojo). There's a larger story there, however, in that The Witches was almost never released at all. Filming took place in April 1988, but the film was not released until August 24, 1990 — what happened?

As The Witches neared completion, would-be distributor Lorimar Productions went out of business. Thankfully, Warner Bros. eventually picked up the film. But distribution was hardly The Witches's only challenge. Roald Dahl himself became irate when his story's ending was changed — so irate he almost had his name removed from the project. The story involves a plot by an evil coven of witches to rid England of all children by turning them into mice. In Dahl's vision, young hero Luke remains a mouse in the end. For the film, two endings were shot: one with the book ending and one where Luke turns back into a human. Test audiences preferred the latter option, but Dahl hated it. Though Dahl relented, he never warmed to the change.

Why people love The Witches

Still, audiences liked The Witches very much. Now seen as a cult classic, the movie boasts a 97 percent fresh Rotten Tomatoes rating and a 70 percent audience score — and there are many reasons why it earned so many raves. 

Writing for The Seattle Times in 1990, Michael Upchurch said of The Witches, "The film becomes a fast-moving action adventure told from the ground up. [...] Roeg couldn't have assembled a better cast. Huston is superb. As a stylish and monstrous icon of evil, she treats strangers, minions and children alike with a haughty disdain. [...] Fans of the book may argue with Roeg and Scott's altered ending, but you won't get any complaints from me. Magical, sinister and prankish, The Witches is a triumph.

Entertainment Weekly's Angeline Goreau gave The Witches a top score in her 1990 review, pointing to a number of bright spots that make the film shine.

"The Witches is the work of an unlikely brew of talents: Adapted from a novel by Roald Dahl (also author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among others), it was produced by the late Jim Henson of the Muppets and directed by Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth). What emerged from the combination of these divergent gifts is utterly magical: a film that appeals to both young and old without condescending to either," said Goreau. "The wit is highly sophisticated, but there's also action, suspense, adventure — to say nothing of the spectacular visual effects produced by Jim Henson's Creature Shop. Don't miss Anjelica Huston's deliciously vile transformation from beauty to beast. And don't miss this film."

One other person loves The Witches — the movie's antagonist, the Grand High Witch, played by Anjelica Huston. Despite spending seven hours in makeup for the full witch look, thoroughly enjoyed getting to be an evil witch. In a 2013 interview with The Sydney Morning Herald, Huston revealed that she once pranked a friend's child by sneaking up on them in a witch costume. "There's nothing better than making children scream, I have to say," she said.

The future of The Witches

The other great reason to watch the 1990 incarnation of The Witches is because it is due to be joined in 2021 by a new adaptation from Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis. The screenplay was co-written by Zemeckis, Guillermo del Toro, and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris, with Alfonso Cuarón serving as producer.

The cast is, likewise, a huge who's who, with Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, and in the role of the Grand High Witch, none other than Anne Hathaway. Originally set for release in time for Halloween 2020, the project was removed from Warner's schedule amid the massive reshuffling the industry has seen this summer. Hopefully, we won't have to wait much longer for a new date. The 2021 film will likely focus more closely on the original Roald Dahl story than the 1990 version. So, if you're looking for a happy ending where mice become humans again, now is the right time to fire up Netflix and watch the original big-screen adaptation of The Witches.