Back when I was a tween, before the term even existed, we didn’t have Internet piracy, Twilight, or the Disney Channel. If we wanted entertainment, we had to settle for preachy after-school specials or snort cough syrup. Also, we’d walk eight miles to school every day while chewing shards of glass. My point is I would have traded ten crates of Robitussin for a show like Wizards of Waverly Place, which has delighted me for two seasons now with its sharp wit and charming subtext. Now comes Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie. The eleven-year-old in me thinks it’s awesome.
If you don’t watch kiddie sitcoms, here’s what you need to know: Selena Gomez and David Henrie star as Alex and Justin Russo, siblings training in the use of their magical powers. The eldest, Justin, is a fussy overachiever. His sister is anything but, and while they spend most of their time bickering, the two remain extremely protective of one another. It’s a sweet dynamic with just a touch of bitter, as they’ll one day have to duke it out to determine who will become the family wizard. There can only be one, you see, though the process doesn’t involve sword-wielding losers spouting gibberish about the Quickening.
All this is covered in the first act, as characters keep advising one another of things they already know: “One of these days, I’m going to win the wizard competition, and I’m going to be the full wizard!” Then it’s off to the Caribbean because of the obscure physics principle stating that every movie based on a Disney Channel series must follow the heroes on vacation. It’s too bad. As the title and opening set piece involving a runaway subway cart indicate, New York is the kids’ natural environment.
The plot at last: when Alex inadvertently rewrites history in such a way that her parents never met, the siblings must fix the timeline before their family is erased from existence. This leads to an Indiana-Jones-like quest as a street performer (Steve Valentine) and his parakeet con them into retrieving the Stone of Dreams, which can reverse any spell. The villains are fairly lacklustre, but they serve their purpose, which is to raise the stakes without overshadowing the family drama.
Incidentally, our heroes have a little brother named Max (Jake Austin). If I seem to treat him like an afterthought, it’s only because the movie does too. As in the series, he spends most of his time on the fringes of the plot, keeping the parents busy with absurdist puns and repurposed blond jokes. Still, it’s worth noting Daniel Berendsen’s screenplay tones down the boy’s goofball nature, depicting him as an impulsive eccentric instead of an idiot. I’m more partial to this version of the character.
Wizards of Waverly Place belongs to Alex and Justin though. The two leads have such great chemistry they could have played lovers. In fact, the film follows the same beats as a romantic comedy, except the love celebrated is that between brother and sister: the protagonists start off at odds, but circumstances force them to work together, and so they get attached, then separated, until finally one makes an amazing gesture to prove his or her affection for the other.
What elevates this familiar material is the complexity of the siblings’ relationship, the way their respective behaviours reflect both admiration and resentment for one another. Consider the scene in which Justin confesses his belief that no one would care for him if he wasn’t continuously proving himself. He concurs when his sister argues their parents would love him regardless, but his expression tells a devastating truth: deep down, he doesn’t think they would.
As such, the wizard competition feels like a vicious joke to Justin, who fears, for all his hard work, his naturally gifted sister will, as always, swoop in and take the prize. He may be right. The irony is her confidence and free spirit stem from his unconditional love. Alex’s wounded gaze reveals her own fragility as she tries to make him understand that. It’s as if her sense of self had been shaken by the realisation Justin doesn’t see in himself all the things for which she envies him.
The reason I keep mentioning the leads’ facial expressions is their subtle looks and inflections give the movie its texture. Gomez, in particular, proves herself a promising comedian, despite having picked up a few bad habits from the Disney Channel school of acting. It’s her dramatic choices I enjoyed the most, though, her decision to play key scenes as heartbreaking instead of warm and fuzzy, setting up the final reversal as an emotional payoff rather than an obligatory plot point.
While most sitcom adaptations are content to reaffirm the franchise’s basic tropes, Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie brings to the forefront what had always been subtext in the series, abandoning its trademark irreverence in favour of genuine insight into the characters’ dynamic. From Alex’s standpoint, the story feels conventional, formulaic even. From Justin’s, it seems an exercise in cruelty. However, the film invites its young audience to look at the whole, to identify with one character through the other’s point of view. That kind of empathy, you can’t find in cough medicine.