Like Emma Thompson in Love Actually re: Joni Mitchell, my love for Sabrina, the Teenage Witch is the love that lasts a lifetime. The series finale is one of the few things I can always count on to make me cry a good ugly cry. Sabrina Down Under, the series’ second TV movie, is still on a VHS at my parents’ house, recorded from the television, and I can still tell you which Mazda commercial is at which point and where the commercial breaks are. I love the show so much that I forgive it its terrible final season and its unthoughtful dismissal of Lindsay Sloane (at least we had Bring It On! and how about that short-lived WB show Grosse Point?).
But what am I getting at? We’re here to talk about Sabrina Goes to Rome, the first tie-in TV movie, which aired in 1998.
The So-Called Plot:
Sabrina is on vacation, seemingly having forgotten everything about her life in Westbridge (there is no mention of Hilda, Zelda, Harvey, Valerie...nada. It starts in a taxi cab). She has a letter from her father about one of her long lost aunts, Sophia. She has a locket that belonged to Sophia, and she’s in Italy because it’s the last place Sophia was spotted before she disappeared….forever. Oh, and when she looks in her bag for the locket, guess who’s in it? Salem the snarky cat! Because he’s the best. And because I guess Nick Bakay really wanted to make sure he made enough money to live on.
Sabrina is staying at a cute little pension, and she’s horrified to find out she has a roommate. Because, you know, witch! Talking cat! Awkward turtle, right? BUT it turns out that her roommate is also a witch! And she’s more bumbling and awkward than Sabrina. Her name is Gwen, and she’s English and adorable and I see her in an entirely different light now than I did when I was 11 and watching this for the first time. Sure, it’s hilarious that she’s awkward, but she’s also trying to be on her own for the first time and clearly wanting to use Rome as a chance to reinvent herself. You get the idea that she’s not seen as all that cool back home.
Gwen goes around messing up spells, eventually turning the landlady’s cute son Alberto into a pigeon, while Sabrina tries to figure out how to free her aunt from this locket. It turns out that her aunt disappeared because of True Love and choosing a mortal man over magic. Y’know. Sabrina meets a cute boy, Paul, and his weird, creepy friend. They are photographers, and once they accidentally see Sabrina using magic, they decide that they should get it on tape because this will make them rich! Initiate hijinks, terrible excuses by Sabrina to explain getting caught using magic, and repeated failures to use camera equipment properly.
Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina
Don’t mess with perfection.
Tara Strong (née Charendoff) as Gwen
With her adorable high-pitched voice, I am pleased to see that she is a voice actress now for various animated series.
Nick Bakay as Salem Saberhagen
I mean, this character really was television genius.
Eddie Mills as
Even for the generically clean cut white guy thing we code as “cute” when it comes to teen television and movies, he was a bit underwhelming.
Melissa Joan Hart as Sophia
Because it’s just that much better when you can go “that’s a 16th century oil painting of your aunt? What an uncanny resemblance!”
Chemistry Grade: B
Paul is underwhelming and has this weird backstory regarding being adopted. It makes very little sense, and as an adoptee, I remember feeling let down by it all, and I felt the same way in a rewatch nearly 20 years (gasp!) after the first viewing. That said, Gwen and her unwavering dedication to kissing every pigeon in Rome (because when she kisses the Alberto pigeon, he will turn back into a man!) is very sweet, and Alberto is as awkward as she is, so they bring the chemistry grade up a bit.
Cliché Count: 14
Never-before-mentioned additional aunt: 1
Brand new rule regarding how witches show off their magic to mortals that is then forgotten in favor of a slightly different rule in some other episode: 1
Talking animals: 2
Turning someone or something into another thing by mistake: 3 (iirc)
Choosing between family/tradition and True Love: 1
Awkward best friend foil: 1 (this could go in both categories, actually)
Bumbling assistant to lead man crush: 1
All-knowing motherly figure gently shuffling main characters together: 1
Parent Trap split-camera scenes: 2 (iirc)
Lead guy with sad past: 1
Learning a big life lesson from another version of yourself: 1
Gratuitous shots of delicious Italian food: 0
Soundtrack: Terrible, Even for a '90s TV Movie
But points for future consistency, because Madonna has a track in this and in Down Under.
Slumber Party Potential: Know Thine Friends
Throwback viewings are always fun, but this lacks a lot of the magical adorkableness of the regular episodes, so it’s only for diehard Sabrina fans.