Artisan // 1996 // 91 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // November 15th, 2003
Do homework. Buy prom dress. Learn how to fly?
Poor little Sabrina: the girl's got issues. Her parents have gone off on a yearlong sabbatical and have left the introverted teen with her eccentric, matronly aunts. She doesn't quite fit in with the kids at her new school. Rich girl Katy Lemore just snubs her, and the campus stud muffin Seth won't give her the time of day. Only the overly devoted Harvey and fellow social outcast Marnie know Sabrina is alive. But all of that is about to change. Sabrina's Sweet Sixteen comes along and suddenly Seth takes some interest. Sabrina joins the track team and wins even more popularity points. And during a bizarre full moon dream/hallucination ritual, Sabrina learns that she is a witch. That's right, Sabrina can work the powers of white magic for good. It's part of her family legacy. They are all witches. After an awkward introduction to the world of spell casting, Sabrina starts to get the hang of hexes and curses. It's not long before she's modifying her look, her luck, and her location on the social ladder with the help of a little hocus pocus. But what Sabrina really wants is Seth. Her aunts warn her, however, that she cannot use her magic for the purposes of love. The consequences would be severe. So as the big school dance and citywide track meet loom ahead, Sabrina must discover how to use her powers properly. If she can control her selfish needs and simply learn to be herself, she will be a happy, well-adjusted charmer known as Sabrina, The Teenage Witch.
There are a lot of words that can describe Sabrina, The Teenage Witch: saccharine, silly, juvenile, formulaic, cartoonish, predictable, overly earnest, and incredibly hardworking. But probably the most surprise adjective that can be connected to this hand crafted starring vehicle for Melissa (Clarissa Explains it All) Joan Hart is...smart. That's right, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch is not just some dumb kiddie fluff concocted to sell action figures or pre-teen merchandise. True, when it moved from movie (or at least made-for-TV telepic) to weekly series, sitcom shtick usurped a lot of the wholesome headiness. But when Nickelodeon's favorite wise gal decided to make the grand leap from elementary to middle level entertainment, she wisely found a perfect transitional element. Sabrina is based on an obscure Archie Comics character from the late 1960s/early '70s, and plays on the metaphor of puberty as a "magical" time in a young person's life by taking the supernatural nature to heart. Thus we get to experience the awkward transfer from girl to young woman within the realm of Wiccans and warlocks, not acne and training bras. This makes the moral lessons more palatable and less personal. And all the while, we are treated to clever writing that has a real ring of truth to it. This is one of the few examples of adolescent angst and high school clique climbing that doesn't reek of redolent, smarmy dialogue where everything is a pop culture witticism or highly personal attack. Characters express their feelings in logical, intelligent terms.
But this doesn't mean that Sabrina, The Teenage Witch manages to overcome all of its kid-vid blueprint trappings. No matter the paranormal plotting going on here, the ersatz special effects, or subtle, sly performances, this is still the same stale old story about an unpopular girl trying for the big man on campus and, once he's caught, learning he's an even larger jerk. Yes, this is a life lesson that all little girls need to understand before they mortgage their fragile futures on a pair of tight buns and a bitchin' Camaro. Sabrina offers us nothing new in the battle between the jet and bereft sets except to teach us that a little bit of voodoo can do wonders to your inherent geek factors. And that brings up another thing: the whole witchcraft mythology and ideology gets very creaky and crooked here. Sabrina's aunts are apparently older than water and yet haven't completely mastered the book of spells. If they had, they wouldn't be living in some Children's Hour style scandal in waiting. But the minute our teen queen gets her hands on the hexes, she is casting and even ad libbing her own special lucky charms left and right. The character of Salem the familiar is also confusing. Okay, so a cat in a leading role has made everyone from Halley Mills to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber a little uncomfortable. Even though he is exceptionally cute and able to talk, the notion of a helper feline for Sabrina seems like an underdeveloped leftover in the litter box of execution. Aside from occasional exposition, this puss serves no purpose. As long as the young people in Sabrina, The Teenage Witch do most the talking, the movie is clever and competent. The whole prestidigitation portion definitely needs more work.
So, you're probably thinking, "Hey, Sabrina is a pretty popular show, so the DVD must have some pretty intense extra goodies," right? Or maybe you are of the opinion that Melissa Joan Hart and her wannabe momma are such micromanaging madwomen that they would never release a digital title featuring the meal ticket Miss without a bevy of bonus material. Or perhaps, in your mind, a comic book come to life (which Sabrina is a primo example of) deserves some manner of major contextual explanation, basically a little audio/video compare and contrast to see if the live action effort matches the masterwork recalled from evenings pouring over the escapades of Riverdale's residents. Well, rest your minds because Artisan is at it again. Yes, the barons of barren ballyhoo have given Sabrina, The Teenage Witch a little something we in the industry like to call "a steaming pile" treatment. There is not one single added element to the DVD, nothing that could remotely be considered "special" or "featured." Even the 1.33:1 full screen image leaves a lot to be desired. During scenes of magical witch effects, the image turns blurry and fuzzy, as if the optical illusions failed to make the full transfer to disc intact. In other places, the print is as sharp as a tack. Sometimes you get compression; sometimes you don't. Aurally, the sound is no big deal. The channels occasionally burble with 2.0 surround, but not enough to make a major difference.
Fans of the series might find it fun to visit Sabrina's first live-action adventures, witnessing how the half hour format compromised the long form's better assets. Others may merely be interested in seeing Ms. Hart in what has to be a rather unglamorous, awkward stage in her personal development. But parents and guardians can rest assured that Sabrina, The Teenage Witch has nothing Satanic about it. This is one sorceress who's really just a little angel.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Rated PG