“Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie” drew 13.6 million viewers for its premiere, making it the second most watched Disney Original Movie to “High School Musical 2.” Fans will want to know one thing, and I’ll say it up-front: yes, the movie is better than the TV show. Production values are helped by location filming in Puerto Rico, and the longer running time (98 minutes on this Extended Edition) gives the writers a chance to incorporate more “quiet” moments and character development that the sitcom formula won’t allow. But “Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie” is still shy of a 7 out of 10, because the plot itself is the same rehash we’ve seen in countless shows and movies, ranging from “The Brady Bunch” Hawaii episode to “Back to the Future” (with even less temporal logic)–with a little Indiana Jones thrown in for good measure.
Disney added “Wizards of Waverly Place” to its line-up in the fall of 2007, and it’s since become one of their most popular live-action sitcoms. The audience, of course, is the same age as the young wizards-in-training. Parents in this show are marginalized, as usual–perhaps even more so, because the kids’ father, Jerry (David DeLouise) was once a wizard but had to give it up in order to marry a feisty Latina mortal named Theresa (Maria Canals-Barrera). But Canals-Barrera and DeLouise, son of famed comedian Dom DeLouise, do a good job of keeping some semblance of parental authority despite their exceptional kids, and they make their limited air-time count.
The show’s twist (and the complication) comes because only one wizard can emerge from each family, and when the three Russo siblings reach adulthood they’ll have to compete in order to see who gets to stay a wizard and who reverts to being mere mortals. In other words, they could have called this show “The Ultimate Sibling Rivalry.” And the rivalry heats up in “Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie,” because a spell-gone-wrong forces the two older siblings to compete for wizard powers NOW, not later.
The main character is Alex Russo (Selena Gomez), a pretty sixteen year old who’s pretty good at slacking. She leaves her stuff all over the house, and spends more energy avoiding work than it would take to actually do it. She talks back, she thinks of rules more as “suggestions,” and gives her brothers almost as much grief as she does her parents. In other words, this kid isn’t exactly a Disney princess. She’s not modeling behavior you want your daughter to emulate any time soon, and that’s my primary objection to the show and this movie, as a parent.
Kids, of course, think back-talk is just fine, and so given that Alex actually gets put in her place and repents for her bad attitude and misbehavior, “The Movie” is an improvement over the TV Show. But the character who’s consistently the better role model is Alex’s geekier older brother, Justin (David Henrie), who’s as conscientious as can be and keeps trying to be there for his sister no matter how poorly she treats him or how much she makes fun of him. Then there’s the mischievous youngest sibling, Max (Jake T. Austin), who’s sometimes content to just sit back and watch with amusement. He’s the sneaky child, the Eddie Haskell of the bunch who appears on the surface to be as good as Justin but has more in common with his sister, at times. Where his siblings are polarized, he swings back and forth.
The film starts out with a “grabber,” with Alex using magic to attend a party her parents forbade her, resulting in a high-speed harrowing subway car ride through New York City’s underground catacombs. But after that opening the movie settles down into familiar territory, with the parents wanting a vacation and Alex wanting to stay home. Dragged along and forbidden to go off with a local boy (Xavier Torres) on this Caribbean island, Alex throws a tantrum. But her version of the kid’s refrain-“I Hate You, I wish you weren’t my mother!” is spouted with a wand in hand, and darned if she doesn’t enact a spell that no one can break. Shades of “Back to the Future,” it’s as if their parents had never met. Only they’re in Puerto Rico, all of them, and so it takes a while to wrap your mind around the concept that creator Todd J. Greenwald and writer Daniel Berendsen are selling. As I said, the time-travel logic gets a bit fuzzy. But when I mentioned this to my wife, she said, “Oh, and you’re okay with the kids being wizards and a street magician’s parrot really being a woman?
Actually, yeah. Even in a world of magic and wizards, there has to be some logic, and this business of the parents instantly not knowing they’re married or have kids, and the kids having their memories gradually fade until they’re whooshed away by time, just didn’t make sense to me. My kids were fine with it, and thought the movie considerably better than the TV show. For them, there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, too, and enough moments of peril to give them a little adrenaline rush.
But for adults? It’s a little tired having the kids search for the Stone of Dreams, which is the only wizard’s trinket powerful enough to reverse the spell and save their family. And it’s also a bit tired to have the magician (Steve Valentine) and his parrot (who’s really Giselle, played by Jennifer Alden) tag along so they can try to get the stone for themselves and wish her back into a being. The only nice touch is that the magician recognized them as wizards instantly because he was the one in his family to lose the wizard’s competition and all his power. That sets up a nice emotional base for the eventual competition between Alex and Justin that happens at their father’s insistence. I have to say, though, that for a Disney made-for-TV movie, “Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie” isn’t bad. It’s just not for the whole family as much as it is for the kids.
The TV show is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but this film is in 1.78:1 widescreen, “enhanced” for 16×9 television monitors. Colors are bright and natural-looking, but there’s a thin layer of film grain throughout.
The audio is a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround in English, French, or Spanish, with French and Spanish subtitles. It’s kind of a volcanic soundtrack. After an initial eruption with the subway sequence, it settles down into barely smoldering dormancy as dialogue takes over and the rear speakers only come to life a bit more in the jungle–but never as much as you think they might. And there don’t seem to be enough boom mikes in scenes set on the beach.
The Extended Edition comes in a bigger box to accommodate a “Stone of Dreams” key chain. It’s one of these pressure-sensitive mood things that you hold with your thumb for 30 seconds and it will register a color. It’s a neat little key chain that some kids might choose to hook on a belt loop or backpack. The accompanying sheet tells you what your “power” is suited for, what type of wish, and like magic eight balls it will provide plenty of diversion for young ones. The only bonus feature on the disc itself is the “Insider’s Exclusive: On Location!” which has stars talking about the special effects, props, stunts, and animals, pitched at a young audience.
If the plot were more original I’d have given this a 7, because it should entertain the target audience of teens and ‘tweens. But you never forget that it’s a TV series expanded to movie format, even though the vistas are wider. And the time-space logic can be harder to take than the Stone of Dreams.