Disney // 1998 // 165 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // October 24th, 2005
Enter an exciting outer-world where unusual creatures celebrate Halloween every day yet are in danger of having their very existence obliterated by an ominous dark force. Can anyone save the peculiar-yet-peaceful inhabitants of Halloweentown?
Young Marnie Piper (Kimberly J. Brown) is a typical soon-to-be-13-year-old girl who's full of energy, not to mention that usual teenage contempt for her seemingly over-protective mother, Gwen (Judith Hoag). Mom just doesn't seem to understand the strange things that Marnie seems to experience and merely brushes them away as figments of the young girl's imagination. It's different when Grandma Aggie Cromwell (the iconic Debbie Reynolds) comes around. The eccentric family matriarch seems to understand and even encourage Marnie's exploration of her feelings and notions of the fantastic, often to the delight of Marnie's younger sister Sophie (Emily Roeske) while at the behest of her pragmatic brother, Dylan (Joey Zimmerman). Naturally, when Grandma comes visiting on Halloween night and tries to coax Gwen into finally allowing the three kids to enjoy the trick-or-treat festivities -- especially Marnie who has "come of age" -- it drives a deeper rift between moms and daughters. After Grandma Aggie fills the kids' heads with eye-popping tales of Halloween witchery and hobgoblin hi-jinks, Gwen confronts her out of earshot of the youngsters:
"You're on the verge of breaking a tradition that goes back more than an thousand years," Aggie protests.
"Your tradition, Mother, not mine. Marnie is my daughter and if I decide not to train her like a witch, then it's none of your business."
"A witch's 13th birthday is supposed to mark the completion of her training," Aggie persists. "If Marnie's training doesn't at least begin tonight, her powers will be lost forever."
Gwen has decided to raise Marnie and her brother and youngest sister as humans, renouncing their magical powers on their behalf, just as Gwen herself has suppressed them since the day she chose a mortal to be her husband. Aggie reluctantly concedes and makes her way back to the bus stop where a very unusual bus will come to take her back to her home -- in Halloweentown. Marnie, having overheard the two adults arguing and professing Marnie's potential for witchcraft, quietly tags along after Grandma with Sophie and Dylan close behind. The three sneak aboard the bus and find themselves transported through a swirling portal to the parallel world of Halloweentown, a place where witches, warlocks, and werewolves (and just about anything else ghoulish, ghostly, or plain goofy) live in peace and harmony. Discovering the kids have followed her, Grandma welcomes them to her home and begins Marnie's witch training. Marnie is absolutely thrilled to learn of her magical potential while also gaining some long overdue insight into the odd happenings that have surrounded her and Sophie, happenings that Mom tried to explain away as mere coincidences.
Gwen discovers the kids' absence and also travels to Halloweentown to collect her children and put an end to witchcraft and her Cromwell lineage once and for all. This doesn't happen, though, before Gwen bumps into an old beau, a warlock named Kalabar who's presently the acting Mayor of Halloweentown. He's long felt jilted over Gwen's choice of a mortal man rather than the chiseled wizard and still holds a gleam in his eye and hope in his heart that the two can someday consummate a union. It's all very nice and even nostalgic for Gwen but it's really time to go. Just as Gwen and the kids are about to bid Grandma Aggie a final farewell, however, an evil presence makes itself known and entraps Gwen and Aggie for its own despicable devices. Now it's up to Marnie, Dylan, and Sophie to conjure up a witch's brew and deliver the redeeming spell to free Mom, Grandma, and all the inhabitants of Halloweentown.
If ever you were wanting for some family-friendly Halloween fare to share with the kiddies, the Disney Channel's Halloweentown will squarely fit the bill. It's appropriately spooky and creepy for young viewers and will likely delight them without delivering frightening material that would incite nighttime anxiety. It is a bit corny, of course (this is the Disney Channel, after all), so much of what you'll see here could be scoffed at and mocked by older viewers. There is an unexpected attraction, though, that tends to appeal to most ages -- the impressive number of creature costumes and effects. From zombies to werewolves to pumpkin-headed folk, Halloweentown delivers mightily as one would hope and expect. If this is to truly be the alternate world where all the delightful denizens that mark the festive and freaky celebration live year-round, then the place better be chock full of every kind of imaginable kook and creep -- and it is. The effects work comes from the barely acknowledged SOTA Effects, Inc. group and their work is fun and fanciful. Highlights include the chatty skeletal cabbie, the distorted Halloweentown dentist, and the evil creature that seeks to send the town and its inhabitants back to the Dark Times. Each scene in the town is well populated with goofy bystanders and monstrous townspeople milling about, making it fun to sometimes look past the actors to see just what that was that walked into the werewolf's barbershop.
As for the actors themselves, screen legend Debbie Reynolds really sinks her teeth into this one (no pun intended) and lets go with an over-the-top performance that embodies the look and sound of a centuries-old witch (who still looks terrific). Kimberly J. Brown performs admirably, too, offering the right sort of teenage annoyance that makes her parental rebuffs believable and genuinely obnoxious. She does a good job providing nuance to her role, too, and succeeds in preventing the role from becoming another clunky character from an inexperienced actor. The other kids perform well, too, as do the adult actors, serving as a credit to the work of director Duwayne Dunham.
When televised in 1998 on the Disney Channel, Halloweentown became a big hit with the cable crowd and enjoyed annual repeats for the next couple of years to follow (usually alongside telecasts of Disney's theatrical Hocus Pocus). Because of sustained popularity with viewers, Disney assembled Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge in 2001. This one reunites the original cast from the first film and we find that Marnie has grown into a well-practiced witch, Dylan still eschews his powers in deference to a milquetoastish personality, and Sophie is still a couple years away from the completion of her training. Gwen has invited Grandma Aggie to live with them on Earth, securing her a secret room that can be magically obscured from prying eyes. On the eve of a big Halloween party, Marnie is smitten by the handsome new boy in town, Kal (Daniel Kountz), who's just moved in with his father, Alec (Peter Wingfield). While giving Kal a tour of the family home, including Grandma Aggie's super-secret room, dreamy-eyed Marnie fails to notice that Kal magically absconds with Aggie's book of spells. As quickly as he arrived, he's gone and so, too, seems to be Grandma Aggie's ability to freely communicate with the residents of Halloweentown. Aggie and Marnie travel back to Halloweentown and discover the beast-laden 'burb is drab and seems to have lost its magic. Meanwhile, monsters are rapidly popping up on Earth and threatening the mortal world. The Cromwell witches must once again pool their powers and save both worlds from destruction and demise.
Halloween II: Kalabar's Revenge had some big shoes to fill in terms of the first production's enchanting power over Disney Channel viewers. The film does a reasonable job about it, dispensing with much of the kiddie-candy of the first picture and replacing it with a similarly palatable yet more foreboding threat. It is difficult to have to get reacquainted with the young actors, they being at the age where two years can change a child to a young adult, sometimes with not-so-cute consequences. All of the actors are charming but the clumsiness of flip-flopping between the younger character traits from the first film to the teen awareness of this outing cannot be escaped. The plot gets us over this hump rather quickly, though, but then tosses in squirmy moments of teen romance in the place of the first film's kiddie comedy. All in all, though, it's a serviceable sequel and manages to respect the viewer's intelligence and tolerance given the material at hand.
Now, Disney DVD has released both films in a double feature DVD. The transfers here really look great, full of color and sharp with detail. They're presented in their original full frame broadcast format and there don't appear to be any stray digital artifacts to obscure the proceedings. The audio is presented in surprisingly effective Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mixes, both which utilize the rear channels to provide ambient effects and appropriate extension of the films' scores. The low end doesn't see much action but that's fine as neither picture employs any sort of bombastic style. The extras on the disc are rather disappointing, though, much like finding way too many pieces of Bit-O-Honey in your trick-or-treat bucket. "The Magic of Halloweentown Movies" is a stingy two-and-a-half minute rush through some on-set activity and interview excerpts. For both of these being such creature-centric productions, arguably there should be some in-depth discussion and demonstration going in that department. The only other element billed as a "bonus feature" is the heavily promotional look into the Disney Channel's new movie, Twitches. Both films' static menu screens provide access to these same two paltry offerings. Looks like it's time to kick over some garbage cans and light up a brown bag on the doorstep for the folks at Disney DVD.
If you're looking to enjoy some lighthearted Halloween fun this year, this two-feature DVD makes for a nice treat. It's just too bad that the folks a Disney couldn't see fit to help a little trick-or-treater fill up their Beggar's Night pillowcase.
Oh well. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2005 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 165 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Halloweentown
* IMDb: Halloweentown II