"Return to Halloweentown," a 2006 production, is the fourth installment in an ongoing series of made-for-television, Disney Channel Original "Halloweentown" movies that began in 1998. I thought it might be instructive to review it, if only as an example of the difficulties one can encounter reviewing films that their creators intended for an entirely different audience than yours truly. The filmmakers clearly meant this one for preteens and maybe young teens, mostly girls, and not for old, fuddy-duddy adult men like me.
The upshot is that if you don't like my conclusions regarding the film, you can blame it on my no longer having the sensibilities, interests, or tastes of a youngster. If you do agree with my conclusions, you can attribute it to our both looking at film as something that should by rights appeal to the best in everyone, regardless of age. In other words, I believe a good movie for children should be one that adults can appreciate, too. Disney, I'm sure, would be the first to acknowledge this, as their animated features from "Snow White" to "The Lion King" and their live-action features from "Treasure Island" to "The Chronicles of Narnia" attest.
The fact is, "Return to Halloweentown" isn't very good. Children are young; they're not stupid. On the one hand, studios shouldn't treat them to below-average movie material just because studios cannot lavish vast sums of money on television productions or because they think children are less discriminating than adults. Bad is still bad at any age. On the other hand, I doubt that this movie, bad as it is, is any worse than most of the banal stuff I watched growing up in the 1950s: "Howdy Doody," "Captain Video," "Ozzie and Harriet," "Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok."
The plot of "Return to Halloweentown" borrows from any number of other, better fantasies, most notably the "Harry Potter" stories, "His Dark Materials" (of which "The Golden Compass" is the first book), "Bell, Book and Candle," and the old "I Dream of Jeannie" and "Bewitched" television shows. In "Return to Halloweentown" we have two settings--two parallel dimensions--our own normal world and another, magical world filled with all sorts of fanciful creatures like witches, warlocks, wizards, werewolves, and so on. Needless to say, Halloweentown is Witch Center.
The main character in the movie is an eighteen-year-old girl named Marnie Piper (played by Sarah Paxton, taking over the role from Kimberly J. Brown, who either got too old for the part or had had enough of it). Presumably if the series started some seven or eight years earlier, the main character must have been in her early teens when things began. That's OK because even though preteen and early teen girls can no longer identify with the character's age, they can envy the character's maturity. Marnie at eighteen is beautiful, smart, sweet, innocent, honest, and perfect in every way. She doesn't smoke, drink, swear, or use drugs, and, one assumes, she has done no more than flirt with a boy. This is, after all, a Disney picture, so the character is one that presents a totally wholesome image for younger girls to emulate. What's more, Marnie is a fashion plate whose hair and clothing always make her look as though she has just stepped off the pages of a stylish women's magazine. Oh, and did I mention she's a witch?
As a witch in good standing, Marnie receives a full scholarship to Witch University in Halloweentown, even though she and her mom, Gwen (Judith Hoag), also a witch, live in the normal world, and the mom wants to keep it that way. The mother is very protective and doesn't trust her daughter going off to a witch school, no matter that it's the best in the magical universe. Still, Marnie gets her way, so the mother packs her off, sending Dylan (J. Paul Zimmerman), Marnie's nerdy brother, to look after her. The story would have us believe that Dylan would rather use his brains than magic, but no sooner do he and his sister arrive at Witch U. than he goes ga-ga over a snarky snob, Scarlett Sinister (Kristy Wu), who with her sisters Sage and Sapphire pretty much run the school and get away with anything they want. So much for Dylan being brainy.
The plot takes what seems like forever to get started, yet it's only an eighty-eight-minute movie. The problem is that it moves at a crawl. Partway through the picture, I found myself getting bored and looking at the clock. The movie was only fifteen minutes in, but it felt like an hour.
It seems that the University sits on the remains of Marnie's ancient ancestral home, and they find a magical box buried there, and inside the magical box is an object of limitless power, and the baddies in the story want to get a hold of it, but only Marnie can open it, so you can guess what happens. And that's pretty much the plot.
Among the film's secondary characters are Ethan Dalloway (Lucas Grabeel), Marnie's romantic interest; Silas Sinister (Keone Young), President of Sinister Industries; Dr. Goodwyn (Leslie Wing-Pomeroy, doing her best Cruella De Vil impression), the Chancellor of the University; Professor Persimmon Periwinkle (Millicent Martin), a kind, although somewhat befuddled, teacher; Professor Icabod Grogg (Scott Stevensen), a malignant, supercilious teacher; Aneesa (Summer Bishil), Marnie's resident advisor, a genie who lives in a lamp; and Agatha Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds), Marnie's grandmother.
"Return to Halloweentown" features a vapid script, uninspired acting, awkward pacing, low-budget special effects, and makeup on the creatures that looks like what you might find on your neighborhood trick-or-treaters Halloween night. Most of the film is corny and tedious. A skeleton taxi driver takes Marnie to school and cracks dumb jokes along the way. They turn out to be the highlights of the show.
I can only presume that the previous entries in the "Halloweentown" series were better than this one, or the series would never have reached four installments. That may not be saying a lot.
Disney chose to present the movie in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, I guess because that was the movie's original television screen size. But why isn't the Disney Channel broadcasting in widescreen? Why do their children's programs continue to sport 1.33:1 ratios when their theatrical releases are in 1.78:1 ratios and beyond? Do they figure more kids have small, standard-screen TVs in their rooms? Maybe, but it's not exactly the kind of thing that keeps me awake at night
In any case, the video quality is fine, the colors quite vivid and brighter than real life. In fact, they're gaudy to the point of seeming cartoonish, which I suppose is the point. The screen is reasonably clean, black levels are deep, and definition is average for a new movie. In other words, all but the most finicky viewers will find the transfer pleasant enough.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is about as innocuous as the video. There is a limited front-channel stereo spread and hardly any rear-channel activity. While there is a well-balanced frequency response, there is little in the way of impact, deep bass, or dynamic contrast. It's just a bland television soundtrack for a bland, television movie.
Understandably, there is not much in the bonus department. The main thing is a behind-the-scenes "Spooktacular" with interviews with the stars and inside looks at the special effects and creatures. At a little over five minutes, it plays like an extended promo for the film. Then, there are twelve scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at seven other Disney titles; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Return to Halloweentown" is harmless, mindless, juvenile fare that with a laugh track probably could pass for any average (or below-average) television comedy of the 1950s or 60s. I should think, though, that by now we had outgrown such empty-headed twaddle and that scriptwriters could come up with something a little more original, a little more daring, a little more exciting, or a little more humorous for today's children. I'm afraid this one misses on all counts.