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Review: “Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch” – Half-Witch, Half-Human, Half-Satisfying

by on October 11, 2013

Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage WitchI’ll admit absolutely no familiarity with Sabrina the Teenage Witch in any of her previous incarnations in comic books, cartoons, or the live-action TV series starring Melissa Joan Hart as the title character. The two screener episodes of the Hub’s new CGI animated series Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch are my first introduction to the character, and unfortunately the most I can say is that I don’t think this new series could explain the character’s longevity. The series is competently done, cherry-picking different elements from the character’s many iterations, but I don’t find much that’s especially remarkable about this hybrid of high school hijinks and the supernatural.

Sabrina Spellman is our half-witch, half-human lead character, who spends half her life in the realm of magic and the other half in our more mundane world, dodging the assorted hazards of life as a teenager in both. In the magical world, those hazards are mostly personified in Shinji, a bullying spoiled brat of a witch who is also the son of the realm’s ruler, Queen Enchantra. His involvement ensures the usual array of arrogant put-downs, mean boy bullying, and cathartic come-uppances. In the human world, the hazards come mostly from Jim, a kind and hunky teen that Sabrina has a crush on; his involvement ensures the usual array of romantic misunderstandings, cute puppy love moments, and regular failure of the Bechdel Test. The shadow of Queen Enchantra crosses over both worlds through her machinations to drive Sabrina from the human world for good, for reasons only mentioned in passing relating to Enchantra’s continuing hold on power. Enchantra’s pawn in the human world is Salem, the black cat who lives with Sabrina and her two witch aunts, Zelda and Hilda, and the feline’s somewhat unwilling involvement seems to go entirely unsuspected by all the humans of the house.

Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch Scream It With FlowersIn the premiere episode, “Dances with Werewolves,” Sabrina’s geeky friend Harvey puts on a cursed varsity jacket and turns himself into a werewolf on the night of the big Halloween dance. In addition to damage control required by Harvey’s lupine state, Sabrina also has to deal with a miffed Shinji, who forces his way into the human world to drag Sabrina off to the equivalent dance in the magical world. The second episode, “Scream It with Flowers,” jumps to Valentine’s Day, where werewolf flowers cross from the magical to the human world and Sabrina has to corral them before someone gets seriously hurt.

Unfortunately, the best thing I find I can say about Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch is that it’s a “nice” show, in the same way that someone being a “nice” boy or a “nice” girl is the kiss of death in a dating situation. It’s a perfectly good, competently done show with some notable good points, and there’s nothing overtly wrong with it. However, it’s just missing that spark that would make it really engaging. “Scream It With Flowers” does better than “Dances with Werewolves,” but even then I find myself at something of a loss to articulate what seems to be missing. I could harvest some chuckles out of the shenanigans Sabrina and her friends find herself in, but the show just seems a little too lightweight for its own good.

Maybe it’s that I’m too used to shows where super powered teenagers serve as parables for the assorted perils of adolescence, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Kaijudo to whatever X-Men cartoon you like. In contrast, Sabrina’s magic doesn’t seem to be anything other than a plot device. Extremely little feels like it’s at stake, despite the occasional ominous reference by Queen Enchantra, which means we’ll only root for Sabrina if we really like her. This might be another reason why I’m not as taken with the show; despite a spirited performance by Ashley Tisdale, Sabrina doesn’t make a very deep impression as a character. I don’t think the scripts really give Tisdale very much to work with, which means most of her energy is squandered. She’s “nice,” and she has the requisite amount of teenage spunk, but even after two episodes, that’s the most I can say about her.

Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch Dances With WerewolvesI don’t think the animation is helping Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch make a very good impression, either. Even accepting the harsher limitations of a TV budget, the CGI animation is a little stiff and jerky, too many of the textures seem the same, and nearly everything (other than maybe Salem’s fur) has that peculiar shine that only seems to exist on CGI renderings. There’s also the usual problem of curiously abandoned streets and environments because it would cost too much to populate them with non-repetitive models. In all honesty, I’m more impressed with the stylized opening credits sequence, which recaps the basics of Sabrina’s life through papercut doodles moving through fanciful environments while a cheerful pop song reinforces the activity on screen.

In the end, Sabrina: Secrets of a Teenage Witch isn’t much more than cotton candy — extremely easy to digest but undernourishing because it’s not much more than sugar and air. Sabrina is a perfectly nice girl, which means parents may love her but the kids may not.

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