Directed by: Kenny Ortega
Starring: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy
Hocus Pocus 2
Directed by: Anne Fletcher
Starring: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy (Spoiler Alert: The witches come back)
For a long time, it wasn’t. Hocus Pocus was panned by critics upon release and barely broke even at the box office. The film gained a cult following, though, because of The Disney Channel and slasher-flick fatigue. The years after Hocus Pocus‘ initial release saw studios embracing cable channels as outlets for their programming. 24 hours of programming a day demands that even lesser fare gets airtime. Meanwhile, the horror genre was running on the last fumes of Freddy Krueger and Jason Vorhees with years to go until Saw and Hostel. The appeal of Halloween itself never tarnished, so Disney inadvertently stumbled upon the underserved demographic of people who liked “spooky” movies, but not scary ones.
Four Halloweentown movies later, Hocus Pocus’ nostalgic charm had only grown, its dated, early 90’s sheen giving a charming, nostalgic kitsch to the film. A sequel seemed like an easy-to-brew concoction. The question now is if the new spell works.
In a concerningly similar situation to my Predator review, I thought that I’d seen Hocus Pocus because I remembered the talking cat. Turns out, I was remembering Sabrina–a different 90’s program with a talking black feline and three witches.
Upon learning of my mistake, my aunt and uncle sat me down for a double feature, the perfect fodder for a–
–review. As I had no affinity for the original, I could view the ’93 film objectively. I could also see which parts the sequel leaned on for easy nostalgia points.
Children summon witches on Halloween. They really shouldn’t have, but either through a birthday celebration or an impish impulsion, they summon the return of Salem’s infamous Sanderson sisters–three witches that want to suck out children’s life forces to gain eternal youth. As the kids scramble around the town looking for ways to thwart the spell, the witches must interact with the modern world in which they find themselves. They bravely contend with asphalt roads, fluorescent light bulbs, and Instagram filters.
As the night wears on, more of the town falls under the Sandersons’ spell, and the protagonists must vanquish them with the morning light lest the witches run amok (Amok! Amok!).
I understand why it gained a following on cable–it feels like a TV movie. Oddly placed musical numbers, cut-and-paste special effects, child actors so amateur they would’ve felt intimidated on the set of an Air Bud sequel–Hocus Pocus has some rough edges. There’s also some dated humor that surprised me for a PG movie (AFTER PG-13 was established). Why does everyone in town, including his eight-year-old sister, razz Mikey for being a virgin? What child in the theater would understand the mom’s Madonna costume? What’s with all the California jokes?
—AND YET, Hocus Pocus has an enthusiasm similar to that cool neighbor that hand sews a Halloween costume every year. The hokeyness eventually becomes part of the charm. This is in no small part thanks to Bette Midler. While Parker and Najimy are game as the sister witches, Midler fully devotes herself to Winnie Sanderson, making her silly and vain one minute, then menacing and driven the next.
I finished the film with both an eyeroll and a smirk. Hocus Pocus is inconsequential, frivolous fun–but it’s not bland. Its quirks–from Parker’s bewitching hypnotism song to a running gag with Nike Air trainers–are memorable. I think that’s why fans returned every year. Just like a charm spell, it lifts you up, leaving its mark with a light, deft touch.
Part of the odd amusement of watching both Hocus Pocus films back-to-back is seeing what the team behind the sequel thought the greatest hits from the first movie were. As soon as the witches return, they perform their first musical number. Midler shrilly calls for her magic book three different times using the same tones (something she only did once in the original). Gilbert, a local magic shop owner, has a black cat identical to the helpful feline in the 90’s version. It doesn’t talk or do anything special here, it’s just a reference.
Speaking of unnecessary references, I think I spotted five or so Easter eggs, (winks/nods to the first movie) and I wasn’t even trying. I get wanting to honor the original work, but Easter eggs often feel like misplaced priorities. What good are cursory, skin-deep references if the bones underneath are dust?
Lest readers think I’m trashing the sequel, I actually found it about as good as the original. For every aspect improved (better child actors, sharper comedic bits, stronger thematic importance) there were new irritations (painfully clichéd queer representation, Gilbert’s telegraphed comedic performance, SO much product placement). I also appreciated that Hocus Pocus 2 wasn’t a total rehash. Without spoiling too much, the Sanderson sisters find out children’s life energy will only get them so far. I also thought the witches’ reactions to today’s tech were well-crafted. Unlike in the 90’s, Winnie and her sisters now know the basics of transportation and household appliances. Roombas and Alexas, however, are frightening to today’s Americans, much less those transported from Puritan days.
As such, Hocus Pocus 2 feels like visiting your childhood home on Halloween and finding out that your cool neighbor still makes homemade costumes. She just sells them on Etsy™ now.
It’s honestly a coin toss, but I’m going to give a hair more credit to the sequel. To seem equal to an original, a sequel has to work a little harder so that fans feel the return trip was worth their time. The movie also has to honor what came before without being slavish to the original. 30 years after the original, the sequel had to reunite a willing cast AND give each member purpose in the story.
I’m flabbergasted, however, that the sequel didn’t bring some of the original kids back, at least for a cameo. Dani’s and Allison’s actresses have made a steady career with roles on The Walking Dead and Ray Donovan respectively. I doubt schedules would’ve been difficult to align. Then again, had I narrowly escaped soul inhalation via witch potion, I’d move back to California ASAP.