Disney's popular teen sitcom centres around young wizard Alex Russo (Selena Gomez), her goody-two shoes big brother Justin (David Henrie) and mad-as-bag-of-spanners kid brother Max (Jake T. Austin), who balance magical misadventures with everyday troubles at their family run sandwich shop in New York city. This feature-length spin-off finds teen troublemaker Alex running true to form when she steals the family wand and a forbidden book of spells. She takes a joyride on a magical subway train alongside daffy best friend Harper (Jennifer Stone), much to the consternation of her long-suffering dad Jerry (David DeLuise), who gave up his own wizard powers when he fell in love with mortal wife Theresa (Maria Canals-Barrera).
Less than enthused about the family vacation at a Caribbean resort, Alex would much rather spend time with hunky, inappropriately older concierge Javier (Xavier Torres), but mom is having none of it. In a fit of anger while holding the wand, Alex rashly wishes her mom and dad had never even met. Lo and behold, Jerry and Teresa are swiftly reincarnated as carefree, kid-hating singletons with no memory of the family they've left behind. Alex, Justin and Max have forty-eight hours to find some way to break the spell, which leads them to toothy, down-on-his luck British street magician the Amazing Archie (Steve Valentine) who claims his pet parrot is really his beautiful girlfriend under a curse. He points them towards the legendary Stone of Dreams, but finding this ancient artefact involves a perilous journey while a malevolent magical tornado is out to wipe the Russo siblings out of existence.
As a series, Wizards of Waverly Place hinges on this weird dichotomy in that Selena Gomez is one of Disney’s most talented and likeable performers, but her character Alex Russo is one of the most abrasive and dislikeable leads in any tween television show ever. Over the years, Alex has come across as self-absorbed, vindictive, sarcastic and frankly, kind of cold, but the movie ingeniously makes these failings a plot point and enriches the character to the point where we can finally understand what makes her tick. By the film's conclusion, Alex emerges genuinely heroic and downright loveable which may not seem like much to non-devotees but marks a major progression from the show.
Like The Wizard of Oz (1939) the essential theme is learning to appreciate family, but screenwriter Daniel Berendson also borrows extensively from Back to the Future (1985) what with the memory-erasing plot device and the Russo kids horrified to see their dad as a young, irresponsible party-animal and mom as a flirty single woman. In the regular series much of the comic tension between Justin and Alex arises from the fact that only one of them can grow up to be the family wizard, while the other will lose their powers. Berendson deepens their relationship and Selena Gomez in particular shines through a number of surprisingly affecting scenes that bode well for her burgeoning movie career.
Lush Puerto Rican scenery (doubling for the Caribbean) and flashier special effects make this one of the slicker Disney TV movies, while Berendson throws a welcome surprise or two to leaven some of the family-friendly predictability. While the series is usually less derivative of Harry Potter than parodic, this pulls out the stops with a full on, imaginative effects-laden wizard’s duel fans are sure to enjoy.