Halloween TV (Movie) Party: Halloweentown (1998)

As a kid, there were a few things that were synonymous with Halloween for me. Of course there’s the usual candy, costumes, scary music, haunted houses, and, of course, trick or treating. Yet my personal favorite time of night always came around the end, when I’d hoard my giant bag of treats into my room and arrange them by size, type, and color while I watch whatever family-friendly Halloween specials are airing on our family TV. Along the way, there would generally be time for me to play a Halloween-type program of my choosing and nine times out of ten, I would pick… The Nightmare Before Christmas, of course.

Yeah, it was mostly my younger cousins who got into the whole Halloweentown craze, while I avoided it along with anything else that aired on the Disney Channel at that time. I really had a strange bias against Disney Channel’s strain of entertainment – many of its live-action shows felt stiff and mechanical in their writing, while their animated shows had these qualities along with usually unappealing art styles. A few years ago when I embarked on a marathon of Disney-related films, I intended to watch at least a handful of DCOMs (a.k.a. Disney Channel Original Movies) of which there are about 105. As it ended up, I only ended up actually watching and writing about Under Wraps, the first of these films. Four years later and for some reason What I’m getting at is that it’s taken me way too long to get around to Halloweentown, especially since it definitely fits under the Halloween TV special criteria and is one of the most beloved of relatively recent years.

It would probably come as no surprise to most that know me that I ended up adoring this one in the end. Honestly, I was surprised myself with how much I enjoyed it, given my rocky history with Disney Channel-related media in general. While the story isn’t terribly unique at its core, I think the elements of the story unique to this particular world are what help to make it shine. Youngster Marnie is celebrating her 13th Halloween with her younger brother and sister – it’s too bad, though, that their mother Gwen has forbid the three of them to go out on Halloween and has for their entire lives. This is especially maddening for Marnie, since she has a particular fondness for weird things, like witches, goblins, dybbuks… all that fun stuff. The children’s one respite from the monotony comes in the form of their Grandma Aggie (played by the always wonderful Debbie Reynolds), who is just as fixated on such strange and mysterious subjects. She is also extremely fond of Halloween, much to the chagrin of her daughter trying to keep her kids away from all that nonsense.

By natural occurrence of events, eventually the three youngsters are whisked away into a magical, unusual world in which their grandmother resides – the titular Halloweentown! This basically confirms that (1) their grandmother is a witch; (2) their mother is also a witch, though is explicitly repressing this side of herself; and (3) Marnie is next in this familial lineage, hence her fascination for the macabre. These realizations couldn’t have come at a more inopportune time – Halloweentown is currently in peril as numerous citizens are suddenly and mysteriously disappearing, one by one. After Aggie sees a creepy hooded figure in a vision, Marnie believes that her witch blood could help rid the town of this villain – but since she hasn’t received any training yet, is it too late? Eventually Gwen makes her way to Halloweentown to bring her kids back, but after seeing what her life could be, Marnie is adamant at living her new life as a witch. Also there’s a strange side-story where Gwen and the town’s Mayor Kalabar used to have romantic ties… and Marnie’s little sister Sophie also has magic powers… and a goblin-turned-handsome-boy named Luke enters the picture too…

Yeah, there’s a whole lot going on here – and I didn’t even name off all of it, to avoid spoilers! Sure this means that much of these threads remain untied by the resolution, but it’s in a way where the producers were fully aware that there would be at least one sequel to the series (in total, there are three). To be fair, though, this is a world I wouldn’t mind revisiting. While the spooky appeal of Halloweentown mildly suffers by having most of the action take place during the day, it’s mostly concerned with being a straight comedy peppered with Halloween-related jokes and imagery. Along with the eerie monster and jack o’ lantern heads possessed by many of the town’s citizens, we are also introduced to a vast array of minor characters who are just as peculiar and actually very impressive in their creativity. These include (but are certainly not limited to) a comedic skeleton cabbie, a zombie salesman in the midst of a bad Elvis impression, a bickering two-headed ticket seller, and (my favorite) a woman dressed as a giant pincushion who can’t seem to go a single moment without a pin-related pun.

There’s really a lot more than meets the eye, especially since so much about this TV movie’s writing follows so much of the cheesy conventions that turned me off Disney Channel fare in the first place. Where Marnie sure has quite a dynamic personality (much of it thanks to Kimberly J. Brown’s consistent enthusiasm throughout) and the sparks of potential character development in Sophie overshadow her limited role, brother Dylan seems to serve no purpose except to throw in a snarky comment here and there. I’ve already mentioned the effortless charm of Debbie Reynolds as Aggie, but I was even more impressed with the role of Judith Hoag as the stubborn mother whose primary concern is the safety of her children. While she plays a very clean-cut mother role for most of the feature, it’s in the moments where she must step it up to protect her kids that had me scrambling for the rewind button to watch again and again.

I was also pretty impressed with the lengths the movie took to build up the universe contained within this relatively innocuous little feature. As the story goes, Halloweentown was created in an effort to quell the animosity that had built up between the mortal world and the monster world, as the former had essentially gone and appropriated many of the customs the latter had invented for their own Halloween. I find it hilarious that there is absolutely no mention of the Celtic and pagan roots of the holiday in this description – sounds like Disney! But anyway, all of this world-building is essentially what comprises the first two-thirds of the film, as no sense of real, genuine conflict ever pops in until around the final half-hour or so. And yeah, if you’re paying attention at all it’s pretty damn obvious who the villain of the tale actually is… though the reasonings behind the conflict in the first place are pretty half-baked and lazy. No spoilers, once again, but just trust me.

But this all leads us to probably my single favorite aspect of Halloweentown as a whole: the role of women! While it’s clear that younger kids watching this are meant to follow Marnie’s journey – and a great journey for girls it is! – I found myself really confiding with Gwen. I really loved how all we know about the children’s father is that he was human, making the three of them half-human – nonetheless, we never really know why he is no longer in their lives. Divorce, death, departure? It’s never clarified, which is such a breath of fresh air from girls’ and women’s stories needing to be shaped by tragedy or loss. They’re a family mainly driven by powerful, ambitious female characters and it is by coming together at the end that they are able to drive away the evil that pervades in Halloweentown. I really wasn’t expecting this from a product of late-90s Disney Channel of all things, but now I’m sure to make up for my previous biases with many more viewings of this movie (and maybe its sequels…?) in Halloweens to come.

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