The fourth installment in the popular franchise packs teen witch Marnie Cromwell (Sara Paxton) off to Witch University in Halloweentown. Finally she can embrace her magical heritage and cut loose — well, except for a few irritating things: brainy, younger brother Dylan (J. Paul Zimmerman) is still too smart for his own good; her mom Gwen (Judith Hoag) is calling every few minutes out of worry; and there’s this new rule that you can’t use magic on campus.
With the portal between the worlds making travel inevitable, Witch University has lost students to the mortal world and therefore opened enrollment to non-witches. No magic means an even playing field for all students. Only, some students, like the fashionista Sinister sisters (Kristy Wu, Kellie Cockrell, Katie Cockrell) get away with magic all the time, whether it’s cheating on an assignment or having lovesick boys cater to them.
But Marnie has a far bigger worry that involves a millennial-old prophecy about her and of course, saving the world — or at least Halloweentown.
While young fans will welcome the ongoing adventures of the Cromwell clan, they may take a minute to adjust to Paxton, who steps into Marnie’s shoes after Kimberly J. Brown played the role for the first three films. Not to worry though. The usually blonde Paxton makes a decent brunette, has tween cred (Darcy’s Wild Life, Aquamarine) and has a goofy vulnerability that balances the larger-than-life themes.
Everyone else (with the exception of the absent Sophie normally played by Emily Roeske) is back though, especially the cheerful Debbie Reynolds as Grandma Aggie and the ever-popular Lucas Grabeel who set pre-teen hearts aflutter in Halloweentown High and High School Musical. Ethan gets his flirt on this time around, although the boy-girl action never passes beyond a G rating. Naturally, new faces make an appearance, most notably Summer Bishil as Aneesa, Marnie’s sassy friend and RA who just happens to be a genie.
Storywise, magic as a metaphor for growing pains and teenage ostracism isn’t anything new even before Hogwarts became popular. Kids will identify with Marnie, who seems pretty darn normal in these odd circumstances, while parents will appreciate poor Gwen’s empty nest syndrome and a couple winks to Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.
This Halloweentown installment is flashier and more colorful, mainly because of the vibrant visual effects that have come a long way from the original 1998 film. While talk about magic bogs down the action at times, at least the practice of magic is snappier than previous films since the witches are less reliant on bulky, wordy spells and instead accomplish spells with a mere gesture or furrowed brow.
Overall, Return to Halloweentown is a charming addition to the Disney Channel resume that mixes elements of adventure, everyday teen uncertainty, a pop-friendly look and likeable characters. Anything beyond that isn’t really necessary for success, but sure makes it more fun.