As long as Amelia has sole control of Patreon review requests, y’all are going to read about early-thirties Donato experiencing the childhood witchy-movie upbringing I never had. Last time it was Practical Magic. Today it’s Halloweentown, directed by Duwayne Dunham of Little Giants fame.
Disney’s made-for-TV children’s tale about not-so-scary monsters is most notable for its festive October charms. Citizens are all horror-friendly characters in rubbery molded costumes, decor favors anything from cawing ravens to stringy fake spiderwebs, and at its core is a family-first narrative about allowing your children to choose what makes them unique. It’s wholesome, goshdarnit—let enchanted little girls get witchy wit’ it!
Debbie Reynolds stars as Aggie Cromwell, a grandmother who dreams of daughter Gwen (Judith Hoag) someday allowing granddaughters Marnie (Kimberly J. Brown) and Sophie (Emily Roeske) to embrace their magical heritage. Gwen protests—desiring a “normal” existence—hiding powers from her kin. That’s until Marnie and Sophie, alongside non-fantasy-loving brother Dylan (Joey Zimmerman), end up in Halloweentown. Aggie finally sees her opportunity to groom Marnie and Sophie’s abilities until Gwen swoops in to spoil any toil and trouble. Too bad the next flying bus back home isn’t for hours, and there’s danger afoot in Halloweentown that might finally unite this feuding bloodline.
Although, hearing “danger” may improperly set your expectations. Halloweentown is assertively a pre-horror-fan title tempered for the youngest audiences as not to scare away teenie-weenie viewers. Today’s genre lacks this type of childhood-slash-introductory horror that’s silly, zany, and spooky on base-bozo levels. That’s not a dig, mind you. Prospective horror fans need a place to start, and Halloweentown introduces the likes of witches brooms, bubbling cauldrons, and statue-maker spells from warlocks who intend to take over entire imaginary creepshow communities.
Halloweentown excels as a grab-bag of monster designs from fearful Frankensteins to sweat lodge spirits to werewolf salon owners. Everything is practically applied no matter if you’re a lagoon creature with fins, flippers, and gills or a gremlin in a bowling shirt who looks like Brainy from Gremlins II but with human arms. Special effects aren’t modern-day dazzling—Aggie’s purse zips in-step like an RC car—and yet that’s the film’s unquantifiable charm. Like a Party City’s Halloween section sprung to life overnight, where the meanest manifestation is a cloaked scarecrow-demon’s face stitched together with straw visible from a few cracks. Vastly more performative than it ever is terrifying (on purpose), but it’s a warm, candy-coated welcome as zombie sales clerks impersonate Elvis or skeleton taxi drivers quip groan-worthy bonehead puns.
At the center of Halloweentown is a certifiably adorable coming-of-covens story about embracing one’s uniqueness. Metaphors and symbolism are easily detectable because creators intend to speak directly to audiences whose cognitive abilities are still in development. Gwen forces conformity onto her very-special daughters (who cares about whiny downer Dylan) while Aggie’s visits are minimal because grandma sneaks in hints about the Crowmwell’s hereditary spellcasting. It’s as sweet and well-intentioned as 90s Disney originals come, down to Sophie’s cute-as-a-button responses, including calling “bad boy” Luke (Phillip Van Dyke) a “weenie.” The kind of movie that saves the day by all Cromwells holding hands, since nothing can defeat togetherness and acceptance.
Does Halloweentown exude dated qualities and cartoon-come-to-life visual leans? Again, prosthetics and makeup look attainable from a simple SFX storefront excursion. That doesn’t snuff an eternal flame fed by the film’s everlasting commitment to not-so-spooky Halloween vibes, all approached with a wink and a grin. Yes, I like it—how could you despise something that embraces like a happy-horror hug from a loved one? Whether or not the conflict between Robin Thomas’ Kalabar and Halloweentown’s faithful is “exciting” is beside the point. You’re here for the vampires who tremble in a dentist’s chair, Sophie turning padlocks into frogs, and the undying message of individuality that hides within this witch-in-training heartwarmer.