In The Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie, the Russo family — an ex-wizard dad, his wife and his three children take a family trip to Puerto Rico pull the amazing magic trick of expanding their Disney Channel TV show into a feature-length film, and it's a fairly neat bit of sleight-of-hand. Even novices to the series are set up, through a series of fairly painless expository scenes, with the basics of the premises underlying the series explained swiftly. In the universe of Waverly Place, only one of a set of siblings gets to inherit the family's spellcasting prerogatives; thus, no matter how much the Russo's "perfect" eldest son Justin (David Henrie), moody teen daughter Alex (Selena Gomez) and jittery youngest Max (Jake T. Austin) like each other, there's some inter-family competition going on. Under all the loving and bonding and sharing. The other nice thing about the Waverly series is that the Russo family, for all of their spellcasting, are also kinda normal; Dad Jerry (David DeLuise) and mom Theresa (Maria Canals-Barrera) run a subway shop, as dad gave up his wizarding abilities to marry a mere mortal; the Waverly universe feels a little more blue-collar than those stuffed starched shirt over in Harry Potter's neck of the woods.
The Wizards of Waverly Place also takes advantage of two time-honored TV-series-to-movie traditions: First, it gets everyone out of town, removing the family from New York and taking them on the road. Next, it takes the carefully-established continuity of the series and shakes it up so as to play with fans' heads (and give the actors a little chance to let loose, too). Bored to death by her mom and dad recanting how Puerto Rico was where they first met ("It feels like Memory Lane is the longest … road … ever.") Alex — a surprisingly, yet agreeably prickly and self-centered teen — lashes out in a fit of pique and wishes that her parents had, in fact, never met. However, since she's holding a wand and a spellbook when she says it, it isn't just an angry outburst but instead a universe-rewriting command that turns mom and dad into single (and horrible) people and leaves the kids in danger of being erased from history. …
Roll your eyes all you want; It's A Wonderful Life goes Caribbean, Back to the Future with wands instead of time travel. The Brady Bunch Hawaiian movie with magic and special effects — all these accusations could be leveled at The Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie, and there is no conceivable way the movie supreme court would not find them guilty. But as the kids go off to find the stone of dreams — sorry, The Stone of Dreams — that can reverse any spell or wish, accompanied by local low-rent ex-wizard Archie (Steve Valentine, a comedian and magician who also has a remarkably satisfying Cockney accent) who has a map to the stone and his own plans for it, they bond and connect in time-honored family entertainment fashion.
The performances range from good to grating; Gomez and Henrie have a nice chemistry, even as Austin's antics will delight kids and tire their parents, and the three adults pitch down the middle nicely well within the constraints of the plot and premise. The special effects vary from the impressive (a floating rock bridge is generated by spell craft) to the clever (Alex, having slept through Spanish class, summons magical subtitles to understand what the locals are saying, and the movie has more than a little fun with them). (As a side note, I often wonder if directors who worked in the '60s or '70s — or, for that matter, the '90s — occasionally ever weep for how easy their modern peers have it in terms of being able to summon up spectacles that would have been impossibly expensive, or simply impossible, a few years ago.) The DVD's extras are divided primarily between marketing materials for the Walt Disney Corporation and a 10-minute making-of featurette, which displays that director Lev Spiro has a handle on both location shooting and special-effects; it's also worth noting that this is the first Disney Channel original movie to be presented in widescreen on DVD. The Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie is, to use an over-used phrase, what it is — a TV-movie filled with effects, mild peril and a message of family and forgiveness; if your kids like Harry Potter (or the
Waverly series, it'll make 96 minutes pass like magic.