Return to Halloweentown, 50 Shades of Grey, and How to Take a Girl on a Journey
In 2006, Disney shocked America. Just two years after the third previous installment of the legendary low fantasy DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie), Halloweentown, the series returned with its fourth and final film, aptly named Return to Halloweentown. As one might imagine, it was an expected and highly anticipated release. But when the movie aired in the midst of Monstober, millions of children across the world had their fears realized. They’d seen it in the commercials but thought it was a different movie, maybe a different character. But, no, it was real. The heart of Halloweentown, the main character, Marnie Piper, had her actress replaced by someone younger and more conventionally attractive: the ever alluring Sara Paxton. The outrage was instant. Though it ended up being the fourth highest rated Disney Channel movie at the time of its airing, the creators have since denounced the film. Apparently, it’s barely canon. But if there is one thing in this movie that’s salvageable, it’s the romance.
In 2015, Universal shocked the world. Releasing an erotic romance movie based on an erotic romance novel was something America hadn’t done in a long, long time, especially for the purpose of delighting bored housewives. Unlike many erotica of days past, this would not have the thrills, chills, or cults to signal to the audience that we’re only seeing this on screen to ‘service and supplement’ the plot (and service and supplement whatever men came to see said plot). No, 50 Shades of Grey would be wholeheartedly an erotic romance. And it would try with all its might to be good. As a guilty pleasure, it is (with lots of emphasis on the guilty), but as a depiction of BDSM and as a romance, it misses the mark completely.
But I’m not going to go into how 50 Shades of Grey handles BDSM or how Return to Halloweentown handles Halloweentown. In fact, I’m only going to talk about one scene in each movie. In Return, it’s the most beautiful scene in the movie; in 50 Shades, it’s the second. In Return, it’s a magic broom, in 50 Shades, it’s a helicopter but the scene remains the same: both male love interests take our main characters on a trip over and above the settings of their films as a song by an under-appreciated pop artist who faded too soon drowns out their laughs and oohs and ahhs. But while Return’s scene enriches the romance of our leads, 50 Shades’s scene cements its demise.
The difference in the meaning of both songs sung during the sequences speaks volumes. Both are about submission. In Jesse McCartney's "Right Where You Want Me", he says, ‘Baby, don’t be gentle, I can handle anything,’ and then proceeds to ask her to take him on a journey. The trust in him is evident and so is the trust in Ethan, our love interest. When considering Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do", one would be tempted to take it from Anna’s perspective because it’s sung by a woman. However, if we look at the course of events leading up to this moment, it only makes sense if it’s taken yet again from the male love interest’s perspective. Love Me Like You Do is what Christian wishes Anna felt for him, what he wishes he would do for her. Of course he wishes she would submit to him, wishes she would say, “Love me like you do, lo-lo-love me like you do. Touch me like you do, to-to-touch me like you do,” wishes she would see what he’s trying to give as worth something. But also, when taken into context of the entire series, Christian wants someone to “follow through the dark” of his own mind, to take him to “see the world [he’s] brought to life”. He is entirely focused on her putting her trust in him, so he can get what he wants out of her.
The relationship in Return to Halloweentown is astoundingly reciprocal and astoundingly simple. Ethan apologizes for his dad’s murder attempt on her family and then proceeds to court her in the most polite way possible. He introduces her to the school, gives her flowers, engages in banter and he asks her on a date (“Think you could take a doodling break tonight? Say, eight o’clock?”). The relationship in 50 Shades however is, as expected of the adult movie, more complex, but in some of the worst ways possible. It starts out reciprocal but the second Christian leaves that coffee date, things go south. Every chance Christian gets, he oversteps whatever boundaries Anna or society have set for him and thinks it’s within his right to do so (“‘What’re you doing later?’ ‘I…work…till 7:00.’ ‘I’ll have Taylor pick you up then’”).
50 Shades of Grey barely feels like a romance because both players aren’t active and willing participants. At each step, Anna is hesitant while Christian is obsessive. The nuance of delegating terms of a relationship is lost when Christian decides to constantly break his own rules. Return to Halloweentown is the perfect romance because both players obviously show that they want this to happen in the way it’s happening. There is no nuance because it’s a DCOM and we’ve got other things to worry about.
But there’s one defining moment at the beginning of these two sequences that tell you all you need to
know about their romances. In Return to Halloweentown, Ethan takes a broom out of a bush and
presents it to Marnie. In 50 Shades of Grey, Anna meets where he’s standing by his helicopter
Christian on top of a skyscraper. In Return, Ethan gives Marnie the broom to pilot and gets on behind
her. In 50 Shades, Anna didn’t even know that Christian is going to pilot until she was already inside.