IF DISNEY IS slowly brainwashing all of America’s children into wanting to look and act just like Miley Cyrus (underage tattoos for everyone, yay!), parents should probably be turning their children’s attention to “Wizards of Waverly Place” instead.
Though “Wizards of Waverly Place” may not be as edgy as “Hannah Montana,” its first official movie, out now on DVD, is a surprisingly effective and family-friendly flick that should keep tweens (and younger 20-somethings who grew up on “Harry Potter,” ahem) wanting magical powers, not body art.
Though stars Selena Gomez, David Henrie and Jake T. Austin aren’t nearly as Broadway-ready as those kids from “High School Musical” or as goofy as the ones from “Hannah Montana,” it’s their acting skills that carry the film, which was watched by 11.4 million viewers when it premiered back in August.
Things start off like a typical episode of “Wizards of Waverly Place,” which focuses on the Russo family, whose three kids Alex, Justin and Max (Gomez, Henrie and Austin, respectively), all have magical powers they inherited from their dad, Jerry (David DeLuise). Though Jerry gave up his powers when he married their mortal mom, Theresa (Maria Canals Barrera), he coaches the kids in their spell-learning and training for the day when the three of them will have to battle it out to become the family’s full wizard — the winner will get all the magical powers, while the two losers will be stripped of theirs. And while oldest brother Justin studies for the test everyday, 16-year-old slacker sister Alex would rather use her powers for her own benefit, like turning the family’s sub shop into a subway car that can take her and best friend Harper (Jennifer Stone) to a party against her family’s wishes.
Lo and behold, her parents find out about her sub shop-turned-subway adventure and force Alex to accompany them on a family vacation to the Caribbean, where Jerry and Theresa first met and fell in love. There’s just one catch: Theresa, who can’t stand when her children use magic to get the best of her or what they want, forces the kids to leave the wands at home. Of course, Justin — who can’t stop using the family’s titanium wand, which works best for him — sneaks that along, while Alex — who swiped the family’s book of forbidden spells from Justin without his knowledge — stows that in her luggage. The two bring their competitive vibe along for the trip, too, and soon their varying interests (and Alex’s rudeness and inability to get along with her mother) lead Alex to wish that her parents had never even met. Bad move, sister.
It’s at that point where Disney takes a little dash of pop culture know-how from “Back to the Future” and some more from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” and uses those tidbits to round out the storyline: If Alex, Justin and Max can’t reverse the spell or get their parents to fall in love again, they’ll disappear (kind of like Marty McFly). And the only way to reverse the spell is using the Stone of Dreams (kind of like Nicholas Flamel’s alchemy work), which is conveniently buried on the same island the kids are staying at and which Justin and Alex go after.
While the storyline is a bit expected — this is Disney, after all, and siblings must get along while parents devotedly love them — it’s the kids — acting and surprisingly believable special effects which make the film work. Gomez is a master at being the annoying, selfish Alex, and her portrayal of a typical 16-year-old rings entirely true (trust me, I’d know), while Henrie works well as the know-it-all Justin, who thinks magic is the only way he’ll amount to anything. The film does a good job at building upon the familial relationships that the show uses on a weekly basis, and though scenes like Alex’s and Justin’s (numerous) heart-to-hearts drag on, they’re necessary to further the film’s plot.
Couple that with some surprising cool effects, such as when Alex and Justin use levitating rocks (think that one level in “Super Mario Bros.” for the original Gameboy) to cross a huge chasm or their weather-heavy magical battle to be the full wizard, and the film should capture fans of the series while also making some converts. It’s frothy and actually fun, and though the special features are somewhat lacking (there are some interviews with the film’s producers and stars about stunts and special effects, but they’re nothing spectacular or particularly insightful), at least it’s not a “Party in the U.S.A.”
And yes, that’s a good thing.
Written by Express contributor Roxana Hadadi
Photo courtesy Disney