Hi! And welcome back to:
I’m just now noticing how much Disney is in this series. But then again, Disney does a lot of stuff that people remember, whether or not it’s actually any good.
Today’s fare isn’t classic Disney, but one of the silly live action 90’s and early 2000’s Disney Channel productions. More specifically, the ones about puberty and how awesome we wish it would actually be.
You think I’m joking? No, Disney was really preoccupied with magical puberty for a while. The Luck of the Irish was about a junior high basketball player who loses his lucky coin, only to grow long ears and shrink a ton and learn that he’s from a family of leprechauns. The Thirteenth Year is about a kid on the swim team learning that he’s a mermaid, because he starts growing fins in the water after his 13th birthday.
These movies were goofy, but memorable, hitting that sweet spot of sympathizing with you if you were an awkward, changing kid (or were becoming one), while also adding magical elements to make it seem more interesting and special. And throwing in some modern fairy tale wish-fulfillment!
Were they good movies?
I’m not sure I’d go that far, but they were silly, corny, and pretty fun. I remember them fondly, even when I go back and cringe (mostly due to the forced “cool kid” dialogue).
To be fair, I don’t think Disney ever succeeded in that, so…
This film is about a world in a different dimension from ours, where Halloween’s most iconic figures live, eat, go to work, and go shopping, just like we do. But cooler.
Every Halloween, humans and Halloweentown residents are allowed to cross paths and visit one another, but most humans are unaware of the opportunity. Witches take center stage in the story.
Yes, witches. But more along the lines of Hermione Granger and Mildred Hubble, not the classic archetype. Despite having classic werewolves, vampires, and frankensteins running around in all their gritty (looking) glory.
This particular 31st of October, Marnie Cromwelll is 13, and she and her two siblings, Dylan and Sophie, sit inside, lamenting that they never get to go out for Halloween.
Their mother, Gwen, seems to have a pretty bitter hangup surrounding Halloween, so she refuses to let her kids engage in the holiday like everyone else.
That’s…really stupid. And selfish.
Her motives are revealed, however, when Gwen’s estranged mother, Aggie (Debbie Reynolds, the only actress I think anyone has heard of from this), comes for a rare, surprise visit. Not only does she openly encourage the kids to enjoy Halloween, against Gwen’s wishes, but Aggie is secretly a witch from Halloweentown, as is her daughter. Gwen chose to live life with a boring human guy and moved to his world, cutting all ties with Halloweentown and her heritage, even after her husband’s death.
Sure, Gwen doesn’t want her kids to find out their heritage (probably because it will lead to a lot of questions), but letting them enjoy Halloween with the normal human kids isn’t going to tip them off about Halloweentown. Other human children haven’t figured out that Halloween imitates Halloweentown, so why would they? If anything, her keeping them in just makes them upset and suspicious of her.
Marnie is already a weird child (she loves Halloween all year, like I do) to other kids, and keeping her from trick or treating and costume parties would be both confusing to other kids and damaging to Marnie, keeping her from being social.
And does she not let them eat candy the rest of the year? What does candy have to do with Halloweentown or magic?
Also, to a kid at least, it’s kind of despicable to keep Marnie from knowing about a choice that directly and permanently affects her, especially with a deadline approaching. Forget the cool witch powers and town full of Halloween goodness: Marnie is being denied a part of her self, and the chance for self discovery. Gwen seems to want to protect Marnie, but it looks more like she is selfishly hiding a truth because of her own hangups so that she doesn’t have to acknowledge or face the past.
Or, more distressingly, that that is a part of herself and Marnie that she’s ashamed of.
As much as you may want to, you can’t keep a kid from facing puberty. Withholding information from them is, at least in my opinion, irresponsible, and bound to lead unfortunate circumstances; not the least of which can be brought about simply by good ole reverse psychology.
On the other side of things, Aggie is shown to be a bit scatterbrained, impish, and impulsive at times, but she’s still a fun and responsible witch who wants to protect her friends, family, and home. And she is proud of herself and her abilities. Sure, she doesn’t get why anyone would choose to live a normal life with humans, as “being normal is vastly overrated,” but honestly, who would, if given the choice?
At best, Gwen comes across as the true weirdo. As an adult, I understand a lot better, but as a kid, I thought she wasn’t very likable; unnecessarily strict and selfish.
But either way, she’s a flawed hum- uh, I mean witch, just like her own mother. And mothers do a lot of stuff we don’t understand, all in the name of love. 🙂
After she reads the kids a bedtime story (with a picture of a girl who Sophie identifies as Marnie, and Aggie barely discourages it), Aggie tells Gwen that she is here because Marnie is 13. As we learned in Kiki’s Delivery Service:
“It’s one of (their) oldest customs that when a witch turns 13, she has to leave home to begin her training.”
Magic puberty! Don’t we all wish that was real: getting awesome powers, instead of zits?
But actually, in this case, Marnie should have been receiving training years before this. If Marnie doesn’t get to work soon, her powers will fade away. Gwen, by choosing to let that pass, is breaking a centuries old tradition. Aggie also explains that people in Halloweentown have been disappearing, and the remainder of folks have begun to act strangely. Something is wrong, and Aggie insists that only other Cromwells, being one of the strongest witch family, can help her figure out what it is and stop it.
Gwen doesn’t allow Marnie to go, nor does she agree to help, so Aggie, sad and frustrated, leaves.
Unbeknownst to either of them, Marnie was listening in, and she and her brother and sister follow Aggie to a bus stop, then onto the inter-dimensional bus that takes them to Halloweentown.
From there, it is adventure and preteen wish fulfillment fantasy.
The characters are pretty entertaining. The kids are all a bit one note, but still memorable, nice, and, perhaps most crucial to Disney, wholesome. Marnie is the “weirdo” kid who feels misunderstood by everyone and clings to the belief that there is a place for her, and that she is destined for something greater. Kind of like Belle, so we the audience are really supposed to like her. I mostly do, but sometimes she got a bit arrogant and impulsive for my tastes. It fits who she’s related to perfectly, though.
Dylan, the token boy, is to his siblings as Simon is to Alvin and the Chipmunks; smart, bookish (read: know-it-all), introverted, skeptical, and constantly dragged along by his sisters on their adventures, occasionally cracking jokes. He lightens up a bit as things go on, but his main role in the movie is to splutter and jaw drop at everything he sees and mumble how it isn’t real. Until the end.
Sophie is the youngest. She is cute, smart, sweet, and precocious; the most perceptive person in nearly every situation. I think she is the most reasonable and balanced of the kids, interestingly enough.
The other characters, particularly the Halloweentown folks, are at least interesting to look at. The music is so bad it’s good. The practical effects and green screening are laughable and cheesy by today’s standards, and even a bit by 1998 standards too, but that lends the movie extra nostalgic charm. Much worse effects than Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and the magical creatures are even less inconspicuous with normal folks (somehow) but even with the budget of a ham sandwich and a rubber band, the makers clearly wanted to excite their kid viewers and keep them engaged.
Sets and characters transition fairly well to the emotional needs of the plot, from friendly and inviting to subtly creepy. And even more.
The villain isn’t completely obvious. That’s not a big worry for Disney anymore, but Disney t.v. and Disney movies often differed drastically in tone and subtlety. If classic Disney was mainstream radio, then Toon Disney and Disney Channel were often the Kidz Bop alternatives, if you see what I’m getting at.
Without giving the ending away, I’d like to say that the morals are standard; tried and true, not new, but certainly nothing reprehensible. And after this, Halloweentown got a nice little series of sequels, going up until 2006.
In that way, it’s unique from the other magic puberty films. It was more popular and lucrative, even than less magical, but similar campy 13-year-old adventure-y Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century.
This movie runs the gamut of all things “Hallmark Halloween”. Cutesy, non-threatening, Halloween fun for kids, with all of the classic monsters that you’ve heard of being sweet, dopey, or ineffectual. It can be creepy, even genuinely scary if you’re young enough, but it’s one of the most harmless and sanitized offerings of the season. And I’m surprisingly okay with that.
At least it has a fitting, well-established climax.
*As per usual, most of the pics don’t belong to me. The title card does, though. Twas done by the gracious and talented Zero, who can be found here. Check her out! 🙂