'Hocus Pocus 2' - witchy sequel's fun, but fumbles

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday October 25, 2022
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Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker in 'Hocus Pocus 2'<br>(photo: Matt Kennedy/Disney)
Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker in 'Hocus Pocus 2'
(photo: Matt Kennedy/Disney)

Double, double toil and trouble

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Hocus Pocus' sequel stumbles

in a plot that often crumbles.

While not awful, tis a struggle.

When the original "Hocus Pocus" was released by Disney in 1993, it was a commercial failure, with the studio losing $16.5 million during its theatrical run. Artistically, critics savaged it. The story; three wicked witches, the Sanderson sisters, hanged in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, are inadvertently resurrected by a teenage boy in contemporary Salem on Halloween night, as they try to gain immortality by killing children, but are outwitted by three adolescents. The film gradually became a camp and cult classic.

It was rediscovered by Generation X and millennials on the cable Disney Channel. For many younger adults and now their children, watching the film has become a time-honored annual Halloween tradition.

Despite its many shortcomings, the wacky outrageous antics and sarcastic camaraderie of Bette Midler (buck teeth and imperious call, "Sisters!"), Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy with their absurd comic banter, along with the autumn/Halloween visual stylishness and rambunctious energy, feeding off the 300th anniversary of the Salem Witch Trials, had its appeal. It also contained a killer closing line: "I had to wait 300 years for a virgin to light a candle."

At the conclusion of "Hocus Pocus" there were indications the witches could possibly return again. Recognizing a potential cash cow, 29 years later, Disney has made a live-action comedy sequel, now streaming on Disney Plus.

Once again another virgin has been tricked into lighting the Black Flame Candle that returns the Sanderson sisters from the dead to seek revenge. Not coincidentally, it's up to three high-school students to stop the nefarious witches from wreaking more havoc on Salem before dawn on Halloween. Since the plot is a virtual carbon copy of its 1993 predecessor, "Hocus Pocus 2" could be considered an unimaginative, repackaged remake.

The only original component is the backstory of how the teen-age Winifred Sanderson was banished from Salem by Reverend Traske (Tony Hale, "Veep") after defying the church for refusing to marry old, ugly John Pritchett. With her two sisters, they escape to the forbidden forest where they meet the woodland Mother Witch (Hannah Waddington, "Ted Lasso") who gives Winifred her magic book of spells as a 16th-birthday gift and teaches them how to be independent.

Whitney Peak, Lilia Buckingham and Belissa Escobedo in 'Hocus Pocus 2'
(photo: Matt Kennedy/Disney)  

Slightly awry
This is where "Hocus Pocus" begins to go awry. In the 1993 version, it's the devil who bequeaths Winifred that same book. Coming off the late 1980s/early '90s satanic cult panic hoax of witches harming and abusing young children, it was easy to cast the Sanderson sisters as evil.

Today, Wicca is a legally recognized spiritual path and religion with chaplains in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces. So, two of the three adolescents in "Hocus Pocus" use their natural girl power to combat malevolent magic. Witchcraft in PC 2022 is a liberating force. The Sanderson sisters are victims of patriarchy and religious extremism. Their redemption is overcoming their own vanity and greed, not sorcery sins or maliciousness.

We are given sermonettes against bullying and bigotry and the virtues of sappy feel-good sisterhood. What there is of a plot includes the Sanderson's vengeance against the town's mayor (Hale again), a distant descendant of the minister who once condemned them.

Yet by de-fanging the sisters' power-hungry villainy and reframing them as misunderstood, the over-the-top fun of witches as baddies strips the film of 1993's sassy, monstrous charm, not to mention clever dialogue. These witches may be woke, but they're spineless and dull, even if they're riding Swiffers and Roombas.

The movie's most amusing scene occurs in a local Walgreens (in a shameless branding plug) where the sisters eat various cosmetic lotions thinking they are potions.

Their comeback production number to the tune of Elton John's "The Bitch is Back," has some sizzle, but later Midler's warbling of Blondie's "One Way or Another" to cast a spell over the townspeople (exactly as was done in the original, though Midler's version of "I Put A Spell On You" was spellbinding) comes off here as flat. It might have been far cleverer and zingier to have Debbie Harry sing her own song.

The debt to queer championing of the film is repaid in a hilarious spoof where former "RuPaul Drag Race" stars play the Sanderson sisters in a costume contest and beat the authentic ones. One can be thankful for the comedic timing and charisma of Midler/Parker/Najimy, despite new bad jokes or repeating stale old ones. What little magic remains is due to the hijinks of this diva trio.

The younger contemporary witches (the ethnically diverse Becca, Izzy, and Cassie) are bland, lack chemistry and wit, but to be fair, the script, weighed down with exposition and insufficient repartee, gives them little inspiration. The multicultural/intersectional bromides seem more important than character development or a novel plot.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be. What we wanted was an update on the escapades and quirky enchantment of Midler/Parker/Najimy, but they are almost sidelined (they don't even appear in the film until the half hour mark) —and become caricatures of their former 1993 selves— by the colorless younger trio, undoubtedly installed for future sequels.

But no matter what we say here, it is likely audiences who loved "Hocus Pocus" will watch this tiresome, listless sequel anyway, though it is doubtful they will view it every year like its precursor. There is even talk of a Broadway musical adaptation of the original film in the works.

Yes, we realize this is only a goofy escapist culture clash teen-comedy capitalizing on the holiday, but dared we hope for a movie that didn't regurgitate the same story? It seems like a waste of talent and opportunity for needed improvement on the original. Still, if it makes your Halloween celebration more festive then all power to you. Happy Samhain, but like those contemporary teen witches, you've been warned.

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