Alex is a School of Visual Arts graduate with a passion for media, writing and animation. He writes reviews for film, television and games.
Halloween is always about spooks, frights, and treats. While fear is still a natural trigger mechanism, there are also times when we listen to tales and fables about the supernatural in any storytelling medium. With the age of television and animation, we have grown up watching timeless shows, specials, and movies, whether it's Casper the Friendly Ghost, Scooby-Doo, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and more. Of course, some aforementioned franchises were adapted from different source materials, including books. A new turn of art direction came into scene during the early 2000s when computer animation was dominating the animation industry. One company called Mainframe Entertainment (at the time) was tasked to adapt a series of children's books into a direct-to-video movie. The subject being Scary Godmother.
Based on the books by Jill Thompson, the direct-to-video film gradually grew into a cult favorite and new Halloween classic thanks to annual re-airings on Cartoon Network. With new artistic liberties given, how does it fare up today?
After Hannah (voiced by Britt McKillip) gets pranked into being scared by her cousin Jimmy, her Scary Godmother (voiced by Tabitha St. Germain) invites her to a Halloween party and befriends with her monster friends.
Even if you are or not familiar with the books, the story on its own does feel like listening to an original fairy tale. It is simple enough establishing the setting, the characters, and the tone. Innocence is the best term to describe the tone. It feels enchanting when entering a world full of monsters and ghouls. It also delivers a powerful message to "never judge a book by its cover." It may sound cliched and predictable in other animated projects but it is effective learning for children not to be afraid on Halloween and giving adults a nostalgic sense of wonder.
Some would make the argument that the concept about a world of monsters is nothing new; it has been interpreted in different stories before. True, while it may have familiar pieces of world-building around them like "night school" or "scaring kids as a job," the movie mainly keeps its focus on the simplicity and characters like any other fairy tale would.
There are moments where the movie would lighten up the mood with some comedy. Honestly, the comedy is hit-and-miss. While it has your usual inoffensive material aimed for younger kids like tamed slapstick and puns, there are actually legit funny moments and one-liners that will catch you off guard.
When looking into a direct-to-video movie, anyone would usually expect the animation quality to be not as good as something out in theaters. For Scary Godmother‘s case, it was a tricky but ambitious exception. Originally, the movie was going to be traditionally animated with a watercolor art style like the books’ illustrations. After a suggestion from Thompson, the medium was changed to computer animation, not because it wanted to jump into the computer animation bandwagon, but to make the characters 3-D and the backgrounds 2-D water colored in order to make them visually alive and standing. There are also some parts of the background like buildings that are constructed in 3-D but given a 2-D look as well. That artistic transition prevailed in an innovative manner and gives its own visual identity among other direct to video movies. It’s like looking at a pop-up book except that the characters and buildings themselves are like the pop-up page sections. Speaking of the characters and background, their designs remain faithful to the books. The human characters look realistic with Hannah visually standing out for her big expressive eyes while Jimmy and his friends have beady eyes. Their eyes would occasionally bulge out in an over-the-top cartoonish manner whenever they get scared. As for the monster characters, each has a distinctive look that differentiate themselves from another. For instance, Count Max and his family have a look paying homage to the early Nosferatu film. Other monster characters have either a friendly, comedic, or ghastly look. For the character animation, the humans move down-to-earth and the monsters have their own style of movement. Again with the vampires, their body movements are slow, because of their primitive age, but fly fast. The other monsters' animations can be energetic or beneficial to their body weight. On the side note, the effects animation, primarily fire or Scary's magic, are also pretty nice with a strong use of lighting appropriately for selected scenes to give that Halloween sense.
In the human world, we have the abandoned “spook house” where its hollow and dark rooms set-up scares and atmosphere for those who step inside. For the polar opposite, we have the monster world known as the Fright Side. After entering through a cloud with an open mouth, we are venture through a vast pumpkin patch and spend out time at Scary’s manor. Her colorful house is full of strange and exotic furniture. If you are hungry, try ordering from Diablo Bros. Pizza...just remember to pay or else you must sign your soul. Afterwards, it's time to party with a pleasant dance sequence and accompanied rock music to have a fun time.
With all that said, keep in mind that is still a direct-to-video movie. To address Mainframe Entertainment for a moment, it was a computer graphic and animation studio known for producing shows, such as Reboot and Beast Wars, during the 90s. Technically, since it was released in 2003, the animation looks better than it was. But, by today's standards and with technology evolving, the animation has definitely aged. The most evident of its age is the rendering. Despite the creative designs and finished movements, the rendering makes some textures not as convincing as they look and the movements looking a little rigid. Criticisms aside, Mainframe Entertainment cannot be entirely faulted for its age due to the materials that the animators were given. In fact, their animation quality did gradually improve years later, including with the sequel, but that's another story.
One element that the movie carried over from the books is its cast of characters. They are simple, yes, but these are simple and charming characters that families will definitely remember. Beginning on the human side, we have our protagonist Hannah Marie. She is a young, shy girl who was initially afraid of monsters yet eventually becomes friends with them and more brave. Our antagonist is her older cousin Jimmy. Besides dressing like the Devil, he is literally devilish, enjoys pranking others, and sometimes acts bossy around his friends. His friends include the naïve Daryll, the reasonable Katie who has a crush on Daryll, and the imaginative Bert. The highlight is Bert's out-of-the ordinary creativity. His Halloween costume is a baseball player driving a SUV with a laser cannon. Other than that, they act as Jimmy's lackeys who eventually regret their actions.
On the Fright Side, there is the titular Scary Godmother. She is a lively and sweet witch who acts as Hannah's mother figure and would occasionally get serious when the situation becomes dire. She also has pet ghost cat named Boozle. Her "broommates" include the flamboyant Mr. Skully Pettibone and the menacingly looking-yet-friendly monster Bug-a-Boo, who has a job scaring kids from under their beds. In addition, her house guests are the vampire family consisting of: the old-fashioned Count Max, his loving wife Ruby and their son Orson who easily befriends Hannah.
And then, there's Harry the Werewolf. He is a talkative werewolf with a voracious appetite and an avid comic book fan. Admittedly, this character would fall under either the "comic relief" or "character we love to hate" category among viewers. Harry can be genuinely funny, thanks to his awkward and geeky nature. Then again, he could be rude after eating all the party food, ordering 12 pizzas for each guest, and THEN attempting to eat them all himself afterwards! Thankfully, he does redeem his actions in the end.
An interesting note about the characters is the voice acting, which many of them did a solid job. The movie has some familiar Canadian voice actors ranging from Garry Chalk to Tabitha St. Germain that eventually went places. Tabitha St. Germain and Britt McKillip are the prime examples. For Tabitha, many would later known her as the voices of Rarity and Granny Smith in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. As for Britt, she had experience since childhood where she was the voice of Lola Bunny in Baby Looney Tunes. Ironically, years later, she would grow up to voice a princess character and become more recognized as Princess Candace on Friendship is Magic.
Overall, Scary Godmother Halloween Spooktacular is an enjoyable movie adaptation based on the books. Although the dated computer technology and simplicity doesn't make the movie epically Spooktacular, its inventive visuals, unforgettable characters and pure tone will entertain both children and adults. It is highly recommended for families who want to have a fun and sweet time around Halloween.