I've never caught any of The Disney Channel's Halloweentown cable movies, but I wish I had, because I was lost for most of Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition. It's hard to pass judgment on this slickly produced teen movie when most of the time I was trying to figure out who was what to whom, and what past magic spell caused this current event. A little background checking on the net helped out after I was finished watching the show, but I would suggest all newcomers to 2006's Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition do that reading before they watch the film.
Marnie Piper (Sara Paxton), an 18-year-old witch heading off to Witch University at Halloweentown, has a lot on her plate. Her mother, Gwen (Judith Hoag), is worried about the influence that magic has on her young daughter, as well as fearful of the dark forces that could be at work in Halloweentown. Her grandmother Aggie (Debbie Reynolds), warns Marnie of the same potential threat, but doesn't elaborate. Marnie's younger brother, Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) is suddenly pressed into service by Gwen to accompany Marnie to school - an arrangement that the independent-minded Marnie distinctly dislikes. Once at school, Marnie also has to face the Sinister Sisters: Sage (Katie Cockrell), Sapphire (Kellie Cockrell), and Scarlet (Kristy Wu). The daughters of powerful industrialist Silas Sinister (Keone Young), these evil siblings flaunt the primary rule at Witch University that decrees no witchcraft is to be used on campus grounds. Clearly spoiling for a fight with Marnie, the siblings prove to be nasty adversaries. Further complicating matters for Marnie is the presence of old boyfriend Ethan (Lucas Grabeel), a witch with a complicated past.
But most daunting of all for Marnie is the fact that she has been prophesized as the witch who will receive "The Gift," a power locked up in a box at Witch University, bequeathed by Splendora Cromwell, an ancestor of Marnie's. What Marnie doesn't know is that the Dominion, a group of evil witches led by Silas Sinister, wants Marnie to take "The Gift" so that they may rule Halloweentown, and enslave all those who are not witches there (evidently, there are other people like mummies, trolls, ogres, and the like in town). Will Marnie be able to handle the responsibility of "The Gift," while settling her personal problems, too?
Perhaps it's unfair for me to be too critical of Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition because I haven't seen the other shows. Certainly, background information and nuance will be lost to me, having not participating in the long-running series (the first Halloweentown premiered in 2001). Still, any movie, even one in a series of sequels, has a responsibility to make new viewers at least comfortable in the film's surroundings. Quite a bit of Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition made no sense to me until after I looked up the stories for the previous movies. Evidently, there was a portal between the mortal world and Halloweentown, and Marnie opened it, and Ethan had troubles with his father, and there's history between Gwen and Aggie over raising Marnie, and so on until I felt at a distinct disadvantage watching the show. No one is saying each new Halloweentown has to start all over again, and clue us in right from the beginning, but come on - let's try and at least have some coherence and continuity.
It's not that Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition is a particularly bad film; it's just uninvolving. There's a certain lackluster tone to the whole enterprise, an abbreviated, abridged feel to the proceedings that didn't involve me. There's a standoffish quality to the acting, directing and writing that I found a little surprising, actually. There's not a lot of passion evident in Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition, either in front of or behind the camera. It felt more like an obligatory continuation, rather than an original entity serving its own storytelling purpose.
I understand that Sara Paxton is new to the role here. She's certainly attractive, and she gets across just a twinge of acceptable petulance in the scenes that ask for her wants and ambitions to be put upon. But there's not a whole lot there in the script for her to do, other than to react to the low-grade but passable special effects. The subplot of Marnie's mom going through empty nest syndrome is essentially thrown away, and there's not much old pros Millicent Martin (as Professor Periwinkle) and Debbie Reynolds can do with their stock characters. Even the villains of the piece, particularly the Sinister Sisters, come off distinctly more cable-ready than big-screen threatening, and when the villains aren't decidedly threatening, it's tough to get behind the heroine.
I would imagine, though, that most young girls will enjoy Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition. It does provide those tweens and younger viewers a glimpse, despite the witch trappings, into the process of growing up and away from home, and the production, while obviously low-budget, does have the professional Disney gloss to keep it at least attractive. Certainly more Harry Potter than Satan's School for Girls, Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition may please fans of the series, but it left me under a spell of apathy.
The full screen video image for Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition looks very clear and bright, with no transfer issues I could spot. An excellent picture.
Equally strong was the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound audio mix, which achieved some nice separation during some of the special effects sequences. English subtitles were available.
Interviews with some of the cast members, as well as some behind-the-scenes looks at the special effects used in Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition were a nice touch for fans of the series.
I didn't feel much of anything for Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition. It wasn't painful to watch, but it was confusing for someone unacquainted with the previous films. A ratings hit when it premiered last year, no doubt some fans will want to own this disc (although, I assume, it will be playing all the time on the channel this fall), and the extras on this disc make it an okay choice. However, if you're new to the Halloweentown series, I suggest you rent the first three, or perhaps read up on them, before renting Return to Halloweentown: Ultimate Secret Edition.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.