Judge David Johnson thinks the cosmetic surgery rates in Halloweentown are through the roof.
Trick? Or treat?
This Disney made-for-TV movie chronicles the ups and downs of a gifted, young spell-caster who has to deal with an evil cabal and pushy social rivals at a magical school all while trying to unravel a mysterious prophecy connected to her. Originality, thy name is Return to Halloweentown!
Facts of the Case
Marnie Piper (Sara Paxton, Summerland) is ready to take the next step to develop her magical powers. Without her mother's blessing, she has enrolled in Witch University, the school nestled in the heart of Halloweentown (a city full of freaks; think Mos Eisley Cantina with its own zip code), where she hopes to grow into a world-class witch. Hanging with her is her nerdy younger brother and studly warlock-in-training Ethan (Lucas Grabeel, High School Musical).
Aligned against the young witch are the abrasive Sinister sisters, the Dominion, an enigmatic coven looking to use her powers to take over Halloweentown, and Jesus.
Yeah, this is a fairly obvious knockoff of Harry Potter. Let's move past that and judge the film on its own merits, shall we? Great. Here it is then: Return to Halloweentown is lame and corny.
That statement, of course, comes with all necessary caveats when you're dealing with this kind of pre-teen-oriented fare, i.e, "Hey it's for kids, not pretentious jackass film critics who like to refer themselves as 'Judges'" or "What do you expect? The budget was equivalent to the cost of a pre-owned Kia Sportage?!" or "Who cares what you think anyway? We're Disney! We print money!" That being said, if I'm having a lousy experience watching 90 minutes of cheeseball Tiger Beat theatrics and low-grade special effects, chances are some of you will, too, no matter how strong your love is for your adolescent daughters. Consider this a warning to create an excuse in advance to sneak out of a viewing. Maybe you have to make lemon squares for a church bake sale or spackle something.
The annoyances begin with Marnie Piper, the main character. Actress Sarah Paxton has some charisma, but she's saddled with portraying a character that is a little less irritating than a bowel resection. Marnie is a spoiled whiner, Paris Hilton with a wand, who can't seem to lose the entitlement inflection in her voice until the end credits roll. There's not that much difference between her and the three Sinister sister antagonists who are crafted specifically to be the spoiled diva types. So you pull for Marnie just because she's the protagonist—but she's not very likable. On the other hand, her counterpart, Ethan, does manage to emerge relatively unscathed, thanks to Grabeel's easygoing performance. The rest of the acting ranges from tolerable to embarrassing; the "grown-ups" in the Dominion chew through their lines as if they were made of Marshmallow Peeps.
The plot is overly complex, what with prophecies and time travel and mind control and secret societies and hidden identities. As contrived as it may be, the narrative should keep the target demographic entertained. And maybe because I'm new to the Halloweentown series, I wondered, "What's the deal with this place? Why do people want to rule it so badly?" As far as I can tell, it's a suburb inhabited by freaks in masks. Perhaps the Dominion should turn its evil machinations to the next comic-con instead, if that's the type of folks they want to enslave. Finally, there are a lot of visual effects strewn throughout the film; some are okay, some aren't. That's to be expected from a low-key release such as this, though.
The DVD is also low-key. The full-frame transfer is fine for what it is, but the lack of widescreen hurts. This is a film that relies on visual happenings and a more serious transfer would have benefited it. There is a 5.1 Surround mix, however. The only extra is a five-minute making-of featurette, making me wonder what's so Ultimate and Secret about this "Ultimate Secret Edition."
Return to Halloweentown is not quite Abra-crap-dabra, and the Disney Channel crowd will probably dig it, but if this is the last trip I ever have to make to Halloweentown, I'll be happy.
Here's some candy corn. Now leave us alone.
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