Halloweentown (1998)


If you were a kid in the late 90s, Halloweentown is a holiday classic and required viewing. If you weren’t, it’s just another mildly entertaining children’s TV movie that features Debbie Reynolds pulling double duty as grandma and witch. I hesitate to say this is the part she was born to play, but the actor slips effortlessly into her role as the loveable witch gran with a master plan. Plus she looks fab in iridescent chiffon dresses and crushed velvet capes.

Her character, Aggie Cromwell, might be sugar on the outside, but she’s not one to mess with especially if you’re intent on destroying her beloved Halloweentown. That’s where the ghosts and goblins and pumpkin people live, and it proves to be a safe and peaceful refuge. Someone or something threatens this idyllic place, however, and Aggie must use her magic to save the town. She would summon her family to strengthen the potency of her spells, but alas, her daughter, Gwen (Judith Hoag), is living it up in the human world having shacked up with a Muggle and given birth to three kids who may or may not have any powers. Still, Aggie makes the effort and visits them on Halloween night, hoping to entice Gwen to join the good fight and to allow the children to be trained in magic before it’s too late. When she doesn’t quite get what wants, she must return to Halloweentown, but not before the kids manage to sneak onto her bus.

I’m not partial to the holiday, but I’ll admit that a Halloween paradise holds some appeal. There’s a perpetual fall in New England coziness that makes you understand why Aggie wants to protect her home so much. Even the scariest monsters, like the cab driving skeleton, aren’t so scary, and her neighbors, fellow witches and trolls, are some of the friendliest around, until they start disappearing.

The movie’s not a tourism video substitute, however, and instead is about the plucky young hero who discovers who she really is. Marnie (Kimberly Brown), the oldest child, can’t get enough of Halloween and loves the fact that she’s in Halloweentown, spending time with her awesome, actual witch grandmother, and may have latent powers of her own. Youngest sister Sophie (Emily Roeske) isn’t as psyched, but that’s because she’s seven and busy being Matilda-levels of sweet. It’s brainy middle child Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) who gives his sister the most grief, and whose grating retorts are like nails against a blackboard. A brainy kid well on his way to heading up the Young Republicans, he prefers a skeptic’s approach to this whole Halloween business. Brown and Zimmerman go at it in a way that resembles more than a few sibling relationships I know. Their bickering can get wearisome, but it’s also fiery enough to light up any situation.

Dylan’s constant fact-checking – he’s a walking Wikipedia in a pre-Wiki age – is the most frightening thing here, and perhaps the mediocrity of the special effects. This is a tame Disney film for the family, fit for a Saturday afternoon with the kids and a mug of spiced cider. But if you find a half-finished crossword or some unfinished raking, best get to that first.

Released: 1998
Dir: Duwayne Dunham
Writer: Paul Bernbaum, Jon Cooksey, Ali Matheson
Cast: Kimberly J. Brown, Debbie Reynolds, Judith Hoag, Joey Zimmerman, Emily Roeske, Phillip Van Dyke, Robin Thomas, Rino Romano
Time: 84 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: The Disney Channel
Reviewed: 2016