Halloweentown revisited

(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)

There are few movies that manage to draw you into their world as instantly as the Harry Potter movies (stay with me here). Their themes of wanting a place to belong and wishing you were part of something magical, and their awe-inspiring wizarding world made millions of kids and grown-ups alike wish they could receive their Hogwarts letter one day.

Of course, what makes Harry Potter special are the kind of things that directly clash with what we know of the Disney brand. After all, not only have they shut down or otherwise changed projects to make them more kid friendly to fit their company image, but their most recent animated show, The Owl House, has come under criticism by parents who consider the show to be “demonic” – all because the show dares to reference witches and have a visual style that’s inspired by the religious paintings by Hieronymus Bosch (though there is a cute little demon).

But back in the ‘90s, things were different. Just one year after the release of the very first Harry Potter book, Disney released its own story wherein a young kid who has always felt they didn’t belong suddenly discovers that they come from a family of magic-users and wants to follow their tradition of studying to become a wizard in a place full of magical creatures, all while being chased by an evil warlock. Only the film didn’t have Dumbledore, but instead Debbie Reynolds as a campy Mary Poppins who owns a microwave that has “Bubble,” “Toil,” and “Trouble” buttons on it. With that in mind, let’s take a look back at one of the most successful Disney Channel Original Movies, the original Halloweentown.

The Pitch

The film’s premise is simple: what if there was a town full of skeletons, ghouls, werewolves, and trolls, where kids could learn to become witches and warlocks? That’d be a dream come true to many kids, but it’s only a pipe dream for Marnie (Kimberly J. Brown), a 13-year-old girl who is obsessed with Halloween and “weird stuff” like witches and ghosts. Unfortunately, her mom (Judith Hoag) seems to be against Halloween and refuses to let Marnie or her younger siblings, Dylan (Joey Zimmerman) and Sophie (Emily Roeske) go trick-or-treating. Of course, things change when Marnie’s eccentric grandmother, Agatha Cromwell (Debbie Reynolds), who doubles as a campy and slightly more witch-like version of Mary Poppins, accidentally leads the kids back to her home in a magical land called Halloweentown. As you’d expect, the town is home to lots of Halloween-y entities living safely away from humans – that is, until an evil entity starts to wreak havoc.

After The Wonderful World of Disney programming ended in 1991, Disney transitioned into a six-movie deal with NBC. One of the projects producer Sheri Singer pitched to the network was based on an idea her daughter had: “Where do all the creatures from Halloween go the rest of the year when it’s not October 31?” The network bought it and a script was written by Paul Bernbaum, who made it appeal to adults since the movie was to air at 9PM, but ultimately NBC passed in 1994 and the project later made its way to Disney Channel, who had initially passed but changed their minds after airing their first original movie, Under Wraps, in 1997. (That one was also Halloween-themed.) 

The problem was, being a Disney Channel Original Movie, Halloweentown had to be rewritten to be lighter and more family-friendly, since Bernbam has said that his original version got “really scary” at times. Additionally, the budget was heavily cut down, taking the movie from a $20 to $30 million project to just a $4 million one. The only thing that remained from the most expensive version of the script were the taxi-driving skeleton, Benny, who was an animatronic and one of the best parts of the movie.

The Movie

Even with a decreased budget, Halloweentown still has some great practical effects and makeup work. There are goblins, banshees, weird cat people, and more roaming around the sets, and even if the producers had to use a limited number of actors who simply wore multiple costumes to create the illusion of a crowded town, it works as well as it can on a TV movie budget. Benny is the highlight of the film’s creations, looking absolutely whimsical and just the right amount of creepy. Likewise, the main villain of the movie belongs to the Don’t Look Under the Bed and Mr. Boogedy school of incredibly creepy Disney Channel Original Movie villains, giving nightmares to many a kid who watched Halloweentown at too young an age.

The other ace up the film’s sleeve was Debbie Reynolds’ Aggie Crowell. A mix of Mary Poppins and Albus Dumbledore, grandma Aggie is not only a powerful witch, but she teaches the main character, and the audience, about embracing being weird and liking horror instead of simply being “normal.” While most people associate Bette Midler with Disney Halloween queens, Reynolds is just as good as the charming and motherly good witch in Halloweentown, who cooks in a giant pewter cauldron and thinks chicken leftovers are best kept by transforming them into actual chickens. 

Even with the budgetary restraints and the small scale of a Disney Channel movie, Halloweentown manages to feel big enough, and it hints at a larger world to sell audiences on more stories. Just as Harry found his home in the Gryffindor common room, so does Marnie find her place among the ghouls and monsters of Halloweentown, finally realizing that embracing her love for weird things is actually a good thing.

The Legacy

Halloweentown was a huge success for the newly-launched Disney Channel. While 1997’s Under Wraps was its first movie, and Brink! gave the channel notoriety with an thrilling action-packed sports movie that still appealed to kids, Halloweentown spawned three sequels, with most of the cast returning for all of them – except for the weird sequel where they briefly replaced Kimberly J. Brown with Sara Paxton.

From the crew, the best known person attached to the movie was director Duwayne Dunham, who had worked as an editor on everything from Return of the Jedi to Blue Velvet, and all 18 episodes of Twin Peaks: The Return (where is that crossover, Disney?).

But the coolest part of Halloweentown’s legacy is what it’s done to the town of St. Helens, Oregon. Since the movie was shot in various locations throughout the state, the event of Spirit of Halloweentown has become an annual tradition that takes over the entire town as participants and visitors celebrate the film by recreating scenes, with an entire replica of the movie’s set being built in the town. Now that the film is widely available on Disney+, you too can join the celebration and prove that Halloween is the best holiday.

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