Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Project DCOM #5: HALLOWEENTOWN


It's clear from the opening shot of a jack-o'-lantern, before the title Halloweentown even appears, that this is a movie built to tie-in to a specific holiday. (No, not Arbor Day.) This marks Disney Channel's second annual mildly creepy October movie. It's a story about another dimension that houses the homes of all manner of beasties from folklore and fairytales, but there's not a hint of true malevolence to be found. It's aimed squarely at kids and as such takes place largely in daylight and the danger within is treated with gravity leavened by enough sweetness and optimism that there's never any doubt that it'll all be okay by the end.

At the start we're in our world when meet a spirited 13-year-old girl (Kimberly J. Brown) who wonders why her mother (Judith Hoag) has not and will never let her and her younger brother (Joey Zimmerman) and sister (Emily Roeske) celebrate Halloween. It's a question that's soon to be answered this particular year by the arrival of their grandmother, played by a true Hollywood legend: Debbie Reynolds. No longer the fresh-faced ingĂ©nue of Singin’ in the Rain, she still sparkles natural charm with each twinkle of her eyes. By 1998 she had aged gracefully into the grandmotherly roles she began taking. In this movie, the sweet old woman only wants her daughter and grandkids to move back to her hometown, a place her daughter would rather forget.

That would be Halloweentown and it's a secret the older lady's not planning on keeping this year. For you see, Grandma is a witch. You could've gathered as much from her entrance as a sort of bizzaro Mary Poppins (though we're quickly made to understand that she's even sweeter and more overtly indulgent a figure). She flies into the picture on a floating bus and disembarks with her levitating umbrella and a sentient bottomless bag filled to overflowing and then some with Halloween decorations, costumes, and a preponderance of sugary snacks. If her daughter won't provide Halloween to her grandkids, then she'll do it herself. Of course, for her, every day is October 31. One thing leads to another and the young teen overhears her grandmother chastising her mother for slacking on the oldest child's witch training. Once the secret's overheard, the kids sneak out after Grandma and end up following her right onto the bus to Halloweentown.

This is clearly a low-budget production, but the star location nonetheless shows some imaginative design. It's simple, like a real-world small town's Halloween superstore burst and rained decorations all over downtown. Happily amazed and not scared one bit, the kids wander around looking for their grandma. The youngest asks if the town's in the middle of a Halloween party. It's a festive place with cobwebs and pumpkins everywhere you look. The residents are average folks going about their business, shopping, chatting, and bowling, normal people but for the practical masks and sculpted makeup that signifies them as otherworldly in some way. My favorite was the two-headed bus station clerk who argues with himself about what one head is consuming, since what one head eats, the whole body digests. After Head 1 takes a sip of coffee, Head 2 shouts, "You're killing me!"

Despite all the monsters, creatures, and assorted spooky sights, the production is too colorful and good-natured to disturb in any way. Reynolds is the biggest reason for this. She brings a warm bubbly presence that stays chipper even as she investigates some strange happenings around town, where the movie comes closest to almost threatening to be nearly creepy. But not to worry. It's all so sweet, brightly lit, and full of gentle comedy that plays likably with themes of family and identity, sticking up for yourself, and learning about your past in order to stay true to who you are. It'd be stretching to say director Duwayne Dunham, who had previously helmed Disney’s 1993 live action theatrical release Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and writers Paul Bernbaum, Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson, sitcom veterans all, were trying to say anything particularly substantive about the immigrant experience, but there's a bit of that floating around as a mild spice in this pleasant witch's brew of a TV movie.

There's some external conflict about an encroaching dark curse that drives the plot, but it never feels truly perilous, although the climactic action is just dangerous enough to prompt these rather pluckily sunny kids into action. It's urgent enough to provide some force to propel the narrative. I like how it all comes down to a scavenger hunt of sorts. This is a movie refreshingly and charmingly aimed directly at a child's point of view. Not to say adults can't enjoy it - I certainly found it a mild diversion with modest charms - but it's built with a solid understanding of the kind of channel surfing elementary-age kid who'd be much better off landing on Halloweentown instead of Halloween in the last week of October.

Up next: Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century

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