Halloweentown (1998)

Halloweentown. Directed by: Duwayne Dunham. Starring: Debbie Reynolds, Kimberly J. Brown, Judith Hoag. Runtime: 1h 24 min. Released: October 17, 1998.

Truly, Halloweentown is the classic Disney Channel Original Movie. It was the fourth to premiere on the network as a DCOM, but it feels like the one that started it all. I’d watch it every Halloween when I was a kid. Watching it now, I don’t know why I stopped that tradition.

The story’s simple. On her 13th Halloween, Marnie Cromwell (Kimberly J. Brown) learns from her grandmother Aggie Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds) that she’s a witch. Well, Aggie wants to tell her she’s a witch but Marnie’s mom, Gwen (Judith Hoag), wants her to live a normal human life.

Marnie really finds out she’s a witch by eavesdropping. In teen rebellion, Marnie and her brother Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) stow away on a flying bus when Aggie goes home to the titular Halloweentown. Their little sister Sophie (Emily Roeske) also tags along, unbeknownst to them. There, they help their grandmother against a dark force that’s threatening Halloweentown.

First of all, the settings are great. I hadn’t seen this film for… a while. The last time I watched this was at least before 2012. Anyway, the sets in this are great and revisiting Halloweentown is such a cool thing. The way they dress up the real town of St. Helens, Oregon, really makes it become Halloweentown. It’s believable they’re in another world where everyday is Halloween.

The monsters here also look pretty good. I know none of them are real, but it’s about convincing the audience, mostly kids, watching that they could be real. There are a couple costumes that look bizarre, like half-human, half-dog people in an aerobics class. There’s also a brief glimpse at a Cyclops character. It’s literally just a person with a papier-mâché head on with an eye painted on it. It’s great for the laugh, and all the Halloweentown characters look really good besides them. One notable one is a skeleton, Benny the Cab Driver. He’s just animatronic, but he looks good and he’s still funny.

The Mayor, Kalabar (Robin Thomas), is one of the more interesting human characters. He’s also trying to make sense of what dark force is threatening Halloweentown. Citizens become evil, like how monsters were perceived in the “Dark Times,” and then they disappear altogether. When we find out what’s doing this, it’s a shadowy figure who looks like a mix between a goblin and a scarecrow looking-thing.

By the way, the made-up history of why Halloweentown was made and why these monsters were essentially exiled to another world is interesting and well-written by Paul Bernbaum, Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson. Aggie explains that in the Dark Times, humans and monsters lived together but hated each other, as the humans tried to destroy the monsters and the monsters tried to make the humans’ lives miserable in response. Thus, they made Halloweentown. Aggie also explains that Halloween became a thing because the humans copied their traditions, and as she puts it, “Mortal see, mortal do.” Watching as a kid, that made-up history is so believable and really cool. Now, I’m an adult (well, arguable) and that history’s still cool to me, and the themes of classism is really interesting. The way that history works into the main conflict is also very smooth.

Speaking so much of Aggie, Debbie Reynolds is great as the character. She’s a legendary actress, but I really know her best as Agatha Cromwell. And revisiting this now, it’s nice to see that pretty much all of the acting is surprisingly good for a TV movie, and it’s so nice to see that the actors are actually passionate about this, especially Reynolds. Kimberly J. Brown is always great as Marnie, too. She’s the most excited one of the kids learning that she’s a witch because she’s always been interested in the occult and now it makes sense why. As much as this is just a Halloween story, it’s a coming-of-age story for Marnie.

Dylan and Sophie are good characters, too. It’s Marnie’s show, but Sophie’s there for the cuteness factor and Dylan has a few good moments, too. The story line is well-structured and moves at a quick pace. I usually have problems with these Disney Channel Original Movie endings, but this feels more eventful than most of them. The budgets just don’t allow for a big climactic battle with big effects.

Most of the effects look pretty good, actually, like Aggie floating down from the bus looking like a Halloween Mary Poppins, and the magic in general looks fine. Flying buses, on the other hand, don’t look as good but that’s expected for a TV movie. The make-up for the monsters look good. As for any horror here, there’s more of a focus on the comedy but the main villain looks pretty creepy. Also what’s happening to the characters when they disappear is eerie.

Amazingly, I don’t have a lot wrong with this and I’m trying not to be biased with all my nostalgic love for this film. There are some cheesy moments, and I think a character named Luke (Phillip Van Dyke) is the cheesiest thing about this. Also the main sub-plot of Marnie’s mom, Gwen really wanting her kids to be humans is murky. She’s caught between two worlds because she married a human, so the kids are half-human, half-witch/warlock, so in that way it’s a bit interesting. But the motivation for shoving it down their throats that they have to be human isn’t clear.

I think it just lends to a message of kids being able to make their own choices. Marnie puts it well. “If you want to give up your roots, that’s fine. I don’t and it’s not right for you to try and make me.”

Other than that, I honestly think it’s the best TV movie I’ve seen. The production value is great, the actors don’t phone it in, and everyone looks like they’re giving it their all. I just loved this as a kid and I think it’s really cool to know that I love this nearly as much watching as a 24-year-old. It’s time for me to start watching this every Halloween again.

Score: 80/100

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