Halloweentown is a very unique series with such a simple and genius premise. What if Nightmare before Christmas was also Sabrina the Teenage Witch. A kid friendly take on all the monsters that go bump in the night along with a celebration of the spoopiest time of the year. It was also one of the few Disney Channel Original Movies to get continuous airplay on their channel around this time of year. It has engrained itself nicely into millennial public consciousness, but seems oddly under discussed. The sequels even less so, maybe it’s time to change that.
The first film, Halloweentown, is kind of perfect for what it wants to be. 13 year old Marnie Piper loves Halloween but cannot participate in it because of her mom. When Marnie’s grandmother, Aggie, turns up she ends up hearing about how she’s a witch and that there is a threat to Halloweentown. Marnie, with the help of her younger brother and sister, stow away with Aggie on her bus ride home only to find out themselves in the mystical of Halloweentown. Goblins, skeletons, and ghouls galore follow.
As an individual film it succeeds really well. Marnie working to learn her magic and uncovering this whole other world is great. She has a strong dynamic with Ethan, her brainy and skeptical younger brother, that is funny without going on too long. The acting from everyone is strong. Debbie Reynolds of well this series fame in Aggie, and being the mom to Carrie Fisher, stands out as the best grandmother ever. A Mary Poppins type that is clearly wise and deadly, but is so effervescent and charming.
The production values, though clearly dated, still give a sense of life to the town. It’s small Main Street America dipped in a fall fair aesthetic is strong. The costumes, though hit or miss, do help sell the town as real. It’s not deep. The politics of how the city works doesn’t matter, but all the diverse costumes and playing the only monstrous on the outside shtick gives it a Gravity Falls vibe.
The biggest weakness the film has is its pacing and plot. Though it gets through a lot quickly, not enough of the stakes are setup. Halloweentown is changing and there is a mastermind with a goal that’s never made tangible. It also ends a little too easily.
What really, I think, helped it standout aside from the aesthetic is the theme of not sepersting sides of the family and personhood. Not having to hide what makes you special because it could also be weird. It’s very whimsical about that, but the struggle to be human and be more than human is real. The cutaways to the mom watching informercials that’s their products is magic and her simply scoffing at that is proof enough.
Halloweentown was a success which meant there were sequels to come. The issue is that Halloweentown is such a simple movie that trying to expand the series is not as easy as expected and they each go in a different direction.
Halloweentown 2: Kalabar’s Revenge, is a very classic sequel idea. On Halloween someone tries to sabotage Halloweentown and make mischief in the mortal world, so Marnie and the Piper family must stop it. This time the machinations are being done by the son of the villain in the first film.
The film is more ambitious but less impressive. This is because it focuses on a couple different ideas that are good but also don’t totally work. One is that Halloweentown is being turned into a generic “Human World.” The whole Main Street and people are grayed out in an amazing practical effect. This is fun in concept, but the whole point of the series is to see this fun magical world. Now you get less of it. Marnie and Aggie have to save it, but that also means being stuck with comically dower characters.
The second focus is on the magic. The film goes into a lot more detail about how magic works. Spells are no longer just wishes but have meanings to be solved. It fun to make Marnie have to solve a puzzle to save the day instead of just wishing, but that is what ends up happening anyway so all that work is pointless.
The film is more ambitious with its effects and stunt work. The whole grayed out city looks amazing considering its all practical. Along with that, the new sets and costumes when they finally appear are defiantly impressive. It’s unfortunate that it feels like it is just all waiting makes the film more dull than intended.
Halloweentown High, the threequel, dives more into the Sabrina the Teenage Witch aspect to the series. It’s closer to a teen drama with supernatural elements than a Halloween movie. It also makes the title a let down.
Set a couple years after the previous film it finds Marnie taking on a group of exchange students from Halloweentown and letting them spend time in the human world at the cost of her family’s magic. Unfortunately a group called the Knights try to stop the progression of magic in the human world.
The idea of the monsters from Halloweentown coming to our world feels uninteresting. Again, the whole point of the series is to see that world and the costumes. The costumes that we see are great. A pink troll, cat girl, werewolf, and giant, are way more expressive and tangible than the past films, but you don’t see a lot of them. Instead they are stuck in human suits in order to push a pretty forward thinking message about tolerance for different people and to not give in to stereotypeing others.
The other big issue with the film is just how much it goes into the Sabrina the Teenage Witch feel. That show was incredibly punny, cheesy, and mushy. Those aren’t bad qualities. That was a great show, but that wasn’t what Halloweentown was about. It takes the fantastical and processes it down for us and then wants to say we need to treat others as people. We already did in the first two films and did that on their terf. It isn’t made better by doing it the other way around. This is also the one I saw the most and have the most nostalgia for. So even though I am harsh on it I think it’s still a fun watch. Just not the direction I would have gone. Also the mid 2000s look is strong with this one.
The final film, Return to Halloweentown, also feels like a misnomer. Not because the title is a lie. It’s true, Marnie and brother Dylan do go back to Halloweentown as college students while their mom is an empty nester and tries to do hijinx to sell a house. The misnomer comes from how this is much more of a classic portal fantasy like Harry Potter (even comes with a prophecy that makes the Cromwell line Marnie comes from ex-royalty and keeper of magical power and Magical Mean Girls). It’s less fall festival and more Ren Fair.
With that said the film is still incredibly charming even with the change from Kimberly J Brown to Sara Paxton. The dialogue feels sharper for one. The expanded costume for background characters is great, and expanding the ideas from the previous film, saying that getting to know others as people is important, but having powers that make you different doesn’t make you better is an important lesson. It’s just unfortunate that it ends with such a flop. The film seeming to want to set up another sequel or mini series to explore and never getting the chance to do so.
The fourth film has a negative reputation and has even less of that Halloween feeling, but taken as a whole series that was on the decline. Just so odd that as the series got better at writing characters and having better budgets they lost more and more focus on what made the first film so good and what they failed to carry over. They are still great watches for younger ones and I think that’s all that really matters
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