Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Witches, Part 5: Of Mice and Women

Alright, strap in.  We're in the homestretch now.  Everything has been set in place, so lets watch these dominoes fall:

- Our friend the maid learns that her new "perfume" has some hairy side-effects as little patches of fur start growing where she dabbed herself with the potion.

Not even Mr. Bean wants you now!

- Luke scurries out of the kitchen (and gets his tail cutoff in the process!) as the witch chef who prepared and tasted the soup begins to feel the power!

One down.  A hundred to go.

- The chef mouse attempts to alert the Grand High Witch who smooshes her into a pile of green goo, assuming she's a transformed child.

Nobody will stand in the way of my soup!

- The witch's assistant Miss Irvine eats alone in her room, Helga breaks a glass in order to get Luke from the kitchen, and Mr. Jenkins doesn't want his Cock-a-leekie soup!

- Finally, all of the witches begin turning into rats.

Uh-oh SpaghettiOs!

In the chaos, Bruno finally reunites with his parents and they all quickly accept that their son will be a mouse from now on.  In the book, his parents remained heartless and passed him along to someone else to take care of, but sometimes parents can be redeeming, even in a Roald Dahl adaptation.

As the witches all become mice, the kitchen staff lead by Mr. Bean begins killing as many mice as they can find.  Helga traps the Grand High Mouse under a glass where Bean can take his cleaver and end her reign of terror in England.

That was a little anti-climatic.  I mean, we never did learn about her history with Helga.

Finally, when all is said and done, Luke (still as a mouse) prepares to leave the hotel by attaching an address label to the Grand High Witch's suitcase filled with money (as well as an address book with the names of every witch in America).  Luke and his grandmother are going to be witch hunters from now on, and he is content to live out the rest of his days as a mouse in his awesome Lego-mouse habitat that takes up the whole house.

And that's the end of The Witches!

So, some final thoughts on this story.  It...wait a minute...the movie's still going?

"Don't you forget about me." - Simple Minds

Oh yeah, Miss Irvine.  What's she up to?  Oh, she decides to reverse the spell on Luke and Bruno.  Well isn't that nice of her?  Yes, she just shows up outside Luke's house, reverts him to his previous state, and returns his glasses and pet mice.  Isn't that sweet?

What a happy ending for all!

Alright, now the movie is actually over.  And Roald Dahl was peeved.

See, Miss Irvine doesn't exist in the original story.  All of the witches are evil, and their magic is irreversible, meaning that Luke remains a mouse, shorter life span and all.  Tension arose among the producers of this film in changing the ending.  As is explained in Henson's letter to Dahl's publishing company, both endings were filmed and tested, and it seemed best for the movie studios (as well as the sanity of the child audience) to opt for the happier ending.

This is the issue that often occurs in film adaptations of books.  Some elements just aren't going to translate to the new medium, meaning that people are going to have to be creative.  And although I feel that the book ends as it should, with Luke remaining a mouse, Henson's final decision to stick with the happier ending makes this movie work.  For three reasons.

1) Movie endings leave a lasting impression on people (especially children).

As is typical of Dahl stories, there is a lot of scary imagery and themes prevalent throughout the film.  Although there is comedy and heart, kids will still remember elements that aren't as frightening to adults.  Kids trapped in paintings, evil witches disguised as kindly ladies, and the horrific transformation sequences is already leaving behind some emotional scars on the young audience.  The audience has earned a bit of visual relief.  A bittersweet ending would be unusual of a children's film and would go against the tone set up by the rest of the story.  Luke has done nothing wrong.  There is no need for him to be punished forever.  I suppose that's how life goes, but it's not a lesson we expect to find in an average children's fantasy.

2) Helga needs to prevail.

Clearly, Helga and the Grand High Witch have battled before.  It's never fully explained, but they had some encounter with the Grand High Witch getting the upper hand.  If Luke stays a mouse, then the Grand High Witch would still have the last laugh, even after her defeat.  Helga has been through enough.  She doesn't need to go through watching her grandson live out a short life as a mouse.  Helga has earned the right to happiness.  Yes, Luke is content to remain a mouse, but he's just a kid and doesn't really understand the situation.  Helga is the one who suffers the most.  Let her have this one.

3) The story needed Miss Irvine.

Although the assistant to the witches had very little to do during the film, her role was important and filled a void present in the original story.  Without Miss Irvine, the women in the story would be depicted as completely ugly and evil, both inside and out.  Notice how sexist the characteristics of witches are.  They don't wear attractive shoes?  They don't have pretty hair?  They don't have well groomed fingernails?  This story is basically telling us that women with unconventional appearances should be shunned and feared.

Dahl rarely has sympathetic adults in his stories.  They have to be really young, like Miss Honey from Matilda or really old, like Charlie's grandparents from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in order to be decent human beings.  So, when the main group of villains are all female, the story comes off as a bit misogynistic.  All (unattractive) women are witches!

This is why we needed Miss Irvine.  She was a witch in training, and as a result, was not treated fairly.  After she is scorned from her clan, there is a brief scene in which we see her all alone and some internal voice says that she never wanted to be one of them anyway.  Yet, by the end, she earns the right to use magic powers.

By including Miss Irvine, we see that good witches do exist in this universe.  No longer are we supposed to completely write off an entire gender.  Irvine breaks the mold and sets about on her own personal journey to give witches/women a good name.  The most telling moment is when she reveals that her ungloved hand is not dry and grotesque like those of other witches.  This implies that by using magic for good, she no longer has to hide herself from society.  The other witches wear the signs of their evil behavior on their skin.  Irvine has shown us that women/witches can make their own choices and become successful without resorting to evil.

Should this movie be part of the Henson canon?

I would say so.  Like Labyrinth, the film straddles the boundary between kids fare and adult entertainment.  There is a campiness to the portrayal of the witches, but nothing ever gets too cheesy.  The movie movies along pretty quickly and each character is fully developed and fun.  And, with Henson's approval of the addition of Miss Irvine, I would classify her as part of the Henson universe.  She represented an element that was missing from the original story and managed to by sympathetic and crucial with only a few lines of dialogue.

This Halloween night, I'd recommend to check out The Witches (or revisit it if you saw it as a child).  The story and special effects hold up quite well, the humor is delightfully witty and clever, and it can still provide some lasting scares.  It's not the best children's fantasy movie, but it deserves its spot in your Halloween library.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Witches, Part 4: Hotel of Horror(ible Service)

The mice-children make their way upstairs to Helga's room and they pass by Mr. Bean and a maid who have been making whoopee in the supply closet.


The maid freaks out at the mice, allowing the children to sneak into Helga's room.  Helga has awoken from her slumber to find that the children have been transformed.  She handles the whole situation of talking mice very well, all things considered.

How does she know that this isn't just a decoy grandson sent by the witches?

After the whole situation is explained, Luke decides he must retrieve the formula and slip it into the witches' food at that night's dinner.  As Helga lowers Luke into the Grand High Witch's room via her knitting, Luke encounters a black cat who threatens his existence.  Fortunately, he manages to discover the potion tucked away in a book.


Meanwhile, Mr. Jenkins flirts with the Grand High Witch in an amusing scene where he wishes to contribute to their charity to protect children.  After nearly being driven to vomit at the mere discussion of children, the Grand High Witch and her assistant retreat back to the room to prepare for the evening's banquet.  Luke nearly gets caught but then he doesn't.  However, she notices Helga distracting her cat from the window above.  I'm sure there is some history there.

As everyone heads to dinner, Helga once again passes by the Grand High Witch and the tension is so think you could cut it with a tension slicer.

I loved her once...

Before heading to the kitchen, Helga approaches Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins in an attempt to clue them in on the situation.  Of course she sounds like a lunatic, especially when she dumps two mice on the tables claiming that one is their son.

He's picking up an olive.  He is clearly Bruno!

Bruno's parents usher her away and she makes her way into the kitchen to drop off Luke and the potion.  You'd think that so many health codes are being violated in this movie (sure, let some crazy old woman waltz in and drop a mouse in our potato sack), but then we see that there are many unsavory practices going on in the kitchen.  Hotel Excelsior! is getting a terrible Yelp review when this movie is over.

Not only do the chefs serve food from the garbage, but the custodial staff steals from the guests, as seen when the maid applies some Formula 86 to her body, assuming it to be perfume.

 Well, she'll learn her lesson, I'm sure.

Also, the witch's cute assistant is not allowed to partake in the festivities.  This is some more foreshadowing!

Back in the kitchen, Luke successfully dumps the entire bottle into the soup being prepared for the witches banquet.  Um, what about all of the other hotel guests who might possibly eat the soup?  Surely nothing good can come of this brilliant plan.

Find out tomorrow whether Luke succeeds or remains stuck as a mouse forever in the conclusion of The Witches!

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Witches, Part 3: Boys Will Be Mice

What does Formula 86 do?  Why it turns children into mice, thus making them easier to kill.  There are a lot of rules about the mouse potion, specifically how long it takes to work depending on the dosage.  So, to show her fellow witches the results of her potion, the Grand High Witch brings in good ol' Bruno Jenkins.

WARNING: The previous clip was super scary and unsettling and should not have been viewed by small children.

After giving Bruno a laced chocolate bar a couple hours before, Bruno returns to receive the promised amount of six more chocolate bars.  However, in 15 seconds, he will turn into a mouse.  The Grand High Witch was cutting it pretty close there.  What if Bruno had gotten held up for some reason?  Then he would have turned into a mouse in front of the hotel guests and the witches' plan would be ruined.

Oh well, Bruno transforms into a mouse in the most grotesquely cartoonish way possible.

I feel like Oompa Loompas should be singing him a swan song about now.

Bruno the mouse scurries away and the witches pat each other on the back for a job well done.  And then, as they are leaving, one witch finally smells Luke and a huge chase scene begins.  Luke manages to escape the ballroom and the hotel completely and heads towards the beach where other guests are.  Um Luke, now would be the time to TELL AN ADULT what is going on.

But no, the Grand High Witch distracts him by PUSHING THE BABY CARRIAGE OF A SLEEPING MOTHER DOWN A STEEP HILL THAT LEADS TO A CLIFF RIGHT OVER THE OCEAN!  What an obvious set up.  Also, this witch was about to straight up kill a baby.  In a kids film.

So of course, Luke saves the day and the baby's mother doesn't report the witches.  Luke ends up back in his hotel room where his grandmother is still passed out in her diabetic coma.  The Grand High Witch catches him and brings him back down to the ball room to force him to drink the whole bottle of Formula 86.

Bad touch!

Luke gets up a little woozily and begins his transformation into a mouse.

But first he becomes Joel Hodgson.

As a mouse, Luke scurries beneath the stage and meets up with Bruno.  They both discover they can talk, but when they run into Luke's mice William and Mary, they are unable to communicate with them.

They aren't puppets like us.

Luke and Bruno plan to make their long trek up stairs to Grandma Helga's room so that she may fix the situation.  The next few minutes are filled with much scurrying as Luke and Bruno change from live-action mice to animatronic mice between shots.  Even though the change is obvious, the mice muppets are really cute, considering their size.


Will Luke and Bruno be able to change their forms and save the children of England?  Find out tomorrow as the spooky story continues!

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Witches, Part 2: Cauldron Con 1990

Luke and his grandmother move into the Hotel Excelsior! where surely nothing could possibli go wrong.  ...Possibly go wrong.

This isn't ominous.

As if on cue, Anjelica Houston arrives complete with a sinister musical sting.  I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but I'm pretty sure she's a witch.  Also, Mr. Bean owns the hotel.  Things are going to get wacky.

After settling in the room, Luke explores the hotel and discovers the most Roald-Dahl-esque child to ever exist.  This is Bruno Jenkins.  If Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt merged into a single entity, Bruno would be the result.  We find him alone in the dining room eating the raisins out of the pastries and putting the remnants back on the serving dish.

Willy Wonka would destroy you, Bruno.

As the Houston leads many women through the hotel, it is clear that some sort of witches convention is in town.  In case this wasn't clear to us, she pauses by a painting that has another small child trapped inside of it.  Luke had better watch himself.

But Luke's already getting into trouble as Mr. Bean confronts him for letting his mice run free.  After an absurd exchange in which the hotel manager barges into the boy's hotel room without permission and the grandmother claims that Luke should be allowed to keep the mice since there are most likely rats in the kitchen, it is decided that mouse traps should be put up all over the hotel.  This is foreshadowing!

Back down in the dining hall, we meet Bruno Jenkins's parents (who are still alive and therefore despicable human beings, as all Dahl adults are) as Mr. Bean notices that the pastries have been nibbled on by the non-existent rats/Bruno.

Rowan Atkinson can make any film a classic.

Grandma Helga notices Anjelica Houston looking at her and has the strange sense that she has met her before...


But it's too late.  Houston seemingly spiked Grandma's tea with magic...or sugar and Grandma will be out of commission for a while, leaving Luke free to practice his mouse circus act in the empty ballroom  at the hotel.  But it just so happens that this is where the Witch Convention is taking place, under the guise of the "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children."

The Horrors of Event Room B.

Hiding behind a screen, Luke observes the witches as they de-wig.  Why they do not smell him is not entirely clear, but no matter.  We need to see what these witches are up to.  Apparently, Houston is the Grand High Witch, and she is the ugliest, foulest, scabbiest witch of them all.  Here is where the Henson effects team has come in and kudos to Houston for wearing this get up for over half of her screen time.



The Grand High Witch firsts lambasts her fellow witches for not meeting the yearly quota of child deaths.  Apparently one child a week just isn't cutting it.  After smiting one of her own kind for daring to speak against her, the Grand High Witch reveals her new plan.  All witches in England shall leave their jobs and open up candy stores.  Although this would probably have some negative effects on the nation's economy (not to mention the many eyebrows this career move will raise), the Grand High Witch is certain that her plan is fool proof.  Because the candy will be laced with "Forumla 86."


Just what does this potion do?  Tune in tomorrow to find out!

The Witches, Part 1: Childhood Fears

How many films are "Henson movies?"  Are they just ones he directed, wrote, or starred in?  What about those that were produced after his death?  If we were to look at Henson's feature film filmography, one would think I've covered them all.  The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, The Dark Crystal, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Follow That Bird, and Labyrinth are the main six films he completed in his lifetime, right?  Well, not exactly.  Henson lent his expertise and production company to a few other films before he passed away.  And with Halloween right around the corner, I feel it is fitting to look at 1990's The Witches.

Prepare to be scared.

No, Henson did not direct or write or appear in this movie.  He was the executive producer, however, and the Creature Shop supplied the puppets and special effects.  He had the final say on this film and therefore, I consider it a part of the Jim Henson canon.

The Witches is based on Roald Dahl's 1983 book of the same name.  Like most Dahl stories, a young child protagonist faces evil adults in a slightly magical world.  This is Dahl's third live action adaptation and the film strives hard to recreate the book's fantastical and creepy quality.  Henson and Dahl seem like they would be an amazing combination so the bar has been set.

Our story opens in Norway where Grandma Helga is telling her grandson Luke about the horrors of witches.  She claims that they are real and she has a missing finger to prove it.  Apparently, witches detest children and their sole purpose in the world is to eliminate every last child.

Especially children who don't clean their rooms or eat their vegetables.

Helga tells the tale of Erica, her best friend from childhood.  One day, Erica was sent on an errand by her parents.  Unbeknownst to them, their neighbor was a witch, and she sprung into action, kidnapping the precious little girl.

Remember, Dahl was never one to spare children from the terrors of life.

Erica's body was never found and the witch neighbor was never suspected.  Soon afterwards, when Helga was visiting Erica's house, Erica's father noticed something in the new farmhouse painting he had just purchased.


Sleep tight, kids!

And every day, for decades, Erica appeared in a different part of the painting, slowly growing older.  No one ever saw her move, but some part of Erica was still alive.  Eventually, Erica disappeared from the painting for good.

Don't mess with witches.

Yes, in the first 10 minutes, we get some good old fashioned nightmare fuel that Dahl specializes in.  There are more stories like this featured in the original book, but thankfully for our sanity, we've only had to deal with one example of this creepiness.

Despite that evidence that witches clearly exist, few believe in them.  And so Helga must inform Luke of the attributes of witches.


1.  She has scratches her head (since witches are bald and wigs give them scalp rash).

2.  She has a purple tint to her eyes.

3.  She wears gloves (to hide her claws).

4.  She wears unfashionable shoes (since witches have no toes).

5. She holds her nose when nearby (because children smell like dog feces to witches).

It's always a pleasure going to Grandma's house! You learn so much!

As if Luke didn't have enough to worry about, that night, his parents die in an automobile accident.  Because it's a kids movie.  As a result, he and his grandmother adopts him and moves to England with him (even though he's American...but he's English in the book, so just accept it).

One day, while playing in his treehouse, Luke has his first encounter with a witch.  This witch is completely not subtle in any way, but I guess the notion of "Stranger Danger" was slow to catch on in 1990's England.

She literally offers him chocolate to entice him.

Fortunately, Luke is smart enough to recognize that, witch or not, this woman is being super creepy.  Despite her offers of candy and a hypnotized snake, Luke alerts his grandmother and the witch scurries away.

Nobody messes with Grandma.

But, as if life weren't tragic enough for young Luke, his grandmother collapses ON HIS BIRTHDAY!  Turns out she has a bad case of diabetes.  It's pneumonia in the book but the point is she's sick.  He alerts his new pet mice, William and Mary that now he and his grandmother are going to have to live in a hotel until she gets better.  I'm sure this is better explained in the book, but hey, why not, let's all live in a hotel?  It is where the main story is going to take place after all.

Happy birthday to me!

If you aren't too scared yet, check back later with Part 2 of The Witches!

Saturday, October 27, 2012


Halloween is nearly upon us!  For Henson and his crew, Halloween seems like the perfect holiday.  It's the day to let your imagination run wild, have fun, and most importantly, be different.  Last year, we took a look at Vincent Price's appearance on The Muppet Show, but for a truly spooky experience, look no further than "Episode 307: Alice Cooper."

It's a graveyard smash!

Alice Cooper was famous for his offbeat persona that he used to separate himself from his rock and roll contemporaries.  His performances were very reminiscent of horror movies, bringing in violent props and creepy monsters.  So of course, Alice brings along his own crew of Muppet monsters known as "The Vile Bunch."

Appearing for one night only!

Alice and his monsters set the mood for the show, resulting in a lot of "scary" and supernatural moments that leave everyone on edge.  He even offers to arrange a meeting with Kermit to sell his soul to the devil for fame and glory.

Just sign the contract.

But behind the black makeup and demonic associations, Alice Cooper is just a regular nice guy.  Despite the horror theme of the episode, the characters are never truly in danger.  At one point, Sam the Eagle confronts Alice, decrying his freakish ways, and Alice of course takes it all as a warm compliment.

Can't a guy just put on his eye shadow in peace?

See, Alice knows that he is being weird and he celebrates it.  And what are the Muppets, if not an endorsement for embracing your weird side?  With the creepy musical numbers, the Muppets are still able to show their softer side, like when Robin sings "Over the Rainbow."  But it's just as much fun letting loose and not worrying about looking strange.

In fact, one sketch is quite similar to Henson's earlier experimental films.  A stalactite complains about a toothache while the rest of the cavern echos his thoughts.  It is bizarre and introspective about the nature of thoughts and it becomes a repetitive cycle by the end as it seems the pain will never truly go away.

I didn't even know that rocks had teeth.

This is just a brief overview of the episode because I feel that this is best experienced as an entire entity.  It is one of the best episodes due to its more-surreal-than-average nature and it's willingness to not be constrained by society's limitations.

If you are looking for some great Muppety Halloween entertainment this year, look no further than the Alice Cooper episode of The Muppet Show.

It's a scream!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Out of the Nursery, Into the Night

The Muppets have always relied on fairy tales and nursery rhymes as a starting off point for entertainment.  This was probably to play off the notion that puppets were kids' stuff and were often used to portray characters from children's stories.  Each foray into the realm of fairy tales provided new twists and experiences.  Tinkerdee, The Storyteller, and Muppet Classic Theater invited parodies, satires, and darkly, artistic adaptations.  But these were just the appetizers for "Fairyland PD."

Scene from "The Emperor's Lewd Clothes"

In a parody of crime procedurals like Law and Order, detectives Clifford and Bobo would investigate the seedier side of Fairyland.  After dark, anything could happen.

Goldilocks has a standoff with the cops in a breaking and entering situation!  The Emperor gets arrested for public indecency!  Humpty Dumpty needs to be talked down from the ledge in his suicide attempt!  These are a far cry from the Sesame Street News Flashes of yore.

These sketches take the fairy tales to their logical extreme, revealing the uncomfortable undertones of the original rhymes.  But of course, they are still Muppets and tomfoolery is to be had.  In "Curds Away," Little Miss Muffet has been being harassed by a lecherous spider and Bobo must perform an undercover sting operation in order to catch the spider in the act.

Much curds and whey are spilt!

It's a little strange that Clifford and Bobo are the detectives.  Rather than take two pre-existing fairy tale characters, the Muppets are brought in.  Perhaps it is to play with their dynamic, but they are both playing different roles than they normally do.  Clifford isn't relaxed or stressed out.  Bobo isn't as dimwitted as he usually is.  They both play the roles straight (with some added wit and candor).  Does this mean that Muppets are actually part of the fairy tale universe?  Doesn't that just contradict the attempts to distance the Muppets from being children's fare?

I mean, they made a new cop character, after all.

Whatever the case may be, this is definitely one of the Muppets' more mature recurring sketches.  Perhaps American audiences weren't ready to see their beloved Muppets mixed up with sex and violence.  But we all must grow up and face the realities.  Life isn't a fairy tale.  And neither are the fairy tales.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Most Dangerous Game

Muppet monsters eat.  That's all they are good for.  It's a simple notion, yet countless Muppet monsters have been created, all for the same purpose.  Consuming and destroying.

Muppets Tonight had to continue the tradition and a new Muppet monster joined the cloth.  And while he eventually appeared in the American episodes, he originated in the recurring U.K. Spot "Swift Wits."  This was a brand new game show, similar to Password or Pyramid, where the host would try to get the contestant to guess a secret word.  If the contestant failed, then a small, cute, innocent animal would be eaten by "Carl the Big Mean Bunny."

My, what big ears you have.

Big Mean Carl was the giant Muppet monster du jour.  What set him apart from the crowd was his various "personas" and his pleasant demeanor.  He wasn't a lumbering beast.  He thought rationally and was pleasant to converse with.  He just happened to eat without remorse.

Did I mention that he ate harmless, tiny mammals?  Victims like poor, little Buffy the puppy.

This is the cutest Muppet ever made.

Yes, each episode a different baby animal would be devoured all because the stupid humans would fail to say the correct word.  Each contestant was so self-absorbed that they would fail to recognize the carnage they would be responsible for.  They were moronic, big-headed, and oblivious.

Well, some of them were just scared.

It eventually got to the point that the host of "Swift Wits" Snookie Blyer would do all in his power to rig the game and keep the animals alive.  Sometimes he would purposely give the contestants the answer.  Other times he would play the game himself.  But no matter how hard he tried, the defenseless animals were always the ones to suffer.

Our noble hero...

But why does this game even exist in the first place?  Couldn't the animals just be put out of harm's way by...not putting them in harm's way?!  The simple solution would be yes, but, as 10,000 years of human development has proven, putting people into a competitive situation will eventually result in bloodshed. The animals are just innocent bystanders who have no say in the destruction and pain we are inflicting upon them.  Even when a few people try to help, there are dozens more standing in their way, causing more harm.

In these brief skits, we get a biting commentary on the human condition and its relationship to the natural world.  We created Big Mean Carl.  Now we have to live with the mess we made.  And so does the rest of the world.

Won't somebody please think of the beavers?!