Tuesday, September 1, 2009
The Wizards Movie: Who Knew?
So. Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie. Here are four short words I never thought I'd find myself typing, unqualified and unironically, in a review of a DCOM -- let alone a DCOM based on one of Disney's kidcoms:
It was pretty good.
Not "it was an infuriating waste of my time, or "cute cast, terrible movie," or even "it was enjoyably bad."
It was pretty good! Like, actually good in the way that you want a movie to be!
The two-second summary: Alex and her mother are fighting non-stop during their family vacation, and Alex makes a thoughtless, angry wish that her parents had never met. Of course it comes true, and now she, Justin, and Max only have two days to get find the Stone of Dreams, a magical artifact that can grant (or in this case, reverse) any wish.
Basically, this movie is what would happen if you threw Goonies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future, and It's a Wonderful Life into a blender: treasure maps, mysterious booby traps, characters who disappear because history has been altered, and a revelation of just how good life really is. But, while the action adventure sequences are fine (unlike the regular series, the effects aren't laughably bad; but they're nothing to write home about, either), what ultimately sets it apart as probably the best DCOM I can think of is the fact that it's a well constructed story. There's only one movie in the movie (something DCOMs aren't alone in screwing up; a lot of recent tween and teen movies have tried to shoehorn two, three, or in some cases seven plots into one movie, *cough*CampRock*cough*). There are some bits that don't really make sense (they make the rule that the kids will forget things, but for most of the movie, only Max does, and then he disappears; Justin forgets things all at once, two seconds before he disappears) or were never followed through with (what exactly had Giselle the parrot done to earn her punishment, and why did the street magician guy go off with her at the end, after she'd been so horrible to him?).
But the plot was smooth enough that it didn't take away from the actual important part: the interpersonal relationships.
Whoa, I never thought I would type that about a DCOM, either. But it's true!
The movie does several things well at the character level: for one thing, you can see how the kids get their personalities from their parents, in an "I learned by watching you!" sort of way. The most obvious example is Max, when he's hanging out with his now-single, still-magic-possessing father. Generally, Max is an immature joker -- and now we see, so's his dad! And without hammering the point too hard, Max learns what a pain that can be to deal with by spending time with his dad.
Better still, the kids (especially Alex) relate to their parents the way actual teenagers do. Every fight Alex had with her mom impressed me, because they didn't seem at all contrived; yeah, magic, whatever, but other than that, they were fights that a lot of teenage girls do have with their mothers.
But, because I am a sucker for such things (and because, let's face it, Selena and D-Hen are the best things about the show), it was the surprisingly depth to the relationship between Alex and Justin that got me and knocked the movie up from "fine" to "pretty good" territory. In the regular series, we see that Alex is a slacker who's perfectly good at magic, but doesn't care enough to try. And we see Justin is a neurotic nerd. And we know that they don't generally get along. It turns out, all of these things have motivations! Justin is desperate for his parents' approval, and thinks that being super-smart is the only way he can earn it. Alex sees that his parents do approve of that, but thinks that she can never live up to his example, so she refuses to even try. Justin is sick of getting in trouble because of Alex. Alex is sick of Justin being a know-it-all. They fight because of all of these things, and through the course of the movie, they gain empathy for one another, they make it clear that beneath it all, they really care about each other, and it's kind of. Um. Touching. And not in a bad-touch way.
You guys, a DCOM had character depth in a way that made sense and drove the plot along and made me care about things! What madness is this? And if Disney can actually find competent people to write and direct things, why don't they do it more often????
Look: the movie wasn't perfect. When I said it seemed like someone had stuck those four movies in a blender, I wasn't joking; there's leaning heavily on movie tradition, and then there's borderline plagiarism, and this movie is much closer to the latter. Nothing about it was especially original, or strikingly brilliant. But (given the source material, and the quality of basically all other DCOMs), it was better than it had any right to be, and even removing the context of the Wizards series and the tradition of DCOMs making no sense, you're left, well… A movie that was pretty good.