‘Hocus Pocus 2’ review: A Bette-middling Disney sequel

Through one of those coincidences that makes me suspect witchcraft — or maybe just the more mundane dark magic of social media — this week reignited some heated chatter online about the dubious cultural legacies of two very different films. One of them is James Cameron’s 3-D marvel Avatar (2009), which recently returned to theaters as the warm-up act for Avatar: The Way of Water. This upcoming sequel will test some of the more stubborn weaknesses of the first “Avatar,” namely that it was a rare box-office hit with negligible pop-culture impact. It was an event film that everyone saw, so the argument goes, but few really liked it.

The other film is the family-friendly supernatural comedy Hocus Pocus (1993), which, like Avatar, has now spawned a long-awaited sequel. But unlike “Avatar,” “Hocus Pocus” didn’t set box office records upon release, didn’t venture into technological territory, and received mostly indifferent reviews. The 10-year-old self who saw it in theaters (and countless times thereafter on VHS) would have delivered one of the more enthusiastic notes, confident in its faintly funny-spooky vibe, now-creaky visual effects, and squeaky Bette Midler rapport , Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson Sisters, a trio of 17th-century New England witches.

Mini-me would have also been excited at the prospect of a sequel, though disappointed to hear it would be almost 30 years to get off the ground. That long gestation speaks to the long, odd shelf life of the first “hocus pocus,” which was received as a cheesy misfire but recaptured over the decades as a Halloween staple and (oc)cult classic. There were fan guides, TV specials, theme park attractions and hugely popular anniversary screenings, some of which were attended by the original cast and crew. Parker even launched her own spinoff sitcom, Hex and the City. OK, I made that up.

Belissa Escobedo, Whitney Peak and Lilia Buckingham in the film "Hocus pocus 2."

Belissa Escobedo, Whitney Peak and Lilia Buckingham in the movie “Hocus Pocus 2”.

(Disney Company)

Despite all of this, the charms of “Hocus Pocus” remain elusive for many, its retrospective popularity a continuing source of consternation. Hocus Pocus 2, coming to Disney+ this week, is unlikely to clear anyone’s confusion. But it won’t make anyone terribly unhappy either. Directed by Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal,” “27 Dresses”) from a script by Jen D’Angelo, the film is a thin but painless makeover that wraps its derivative story in a familiar cloak of fan satisfaction. It begins in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts, where a defiantly godless young Winifred Sanderson (a very good Taylor Henderson) flees into the woods with her sisters Mary (Nina Kitchen) and Sarah (Juju Journey Brener). There they meet an elderly witch (“Ted Lassos” Hannah Waddingham) who leaves them a magical grimoire that will unleash their dark powers.

Jump to the present, exactly 29 years after the events of the first “Hocus Pocus,” when a virgin high schooler unwisely resurrected the Sanderson Sisters for a Halloween night of literal, soul-sucking mayhem. That happens again in Hocus Pocus 2, this time through a rather smarter teenage girl, Becca (Whitney Peak), and a very dopey Salem historian, Gilbert (Sam Richardson), plus convoluted story logic that brings the evil sisters roaring back to life. As the smacking, incantation-slinging Winifred, Midler once again devours the scenery, sometimes chasing it with lightning. Najimy and Parker also return as dopey Mary and giddy Sarah, respectively, who live to track down kids and lure them to tasty deaths.

The Sandersons’ shtick — part Sub-Three Stooges slapstick, part Saturday Night Live parody of The Crucible — isn’t any smarter or more inspired than in the first film, but Midler, Najimy and Parker remain such play-actors, so adept at vampiric antics and menacing facial contortions that you won’t really care. They are particularly funny in a sequence where Becca and her friend Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) try to distract the witches from their pedicidal rampage by taking them shopping at Walgreens, where they are duly impressed by the advanced magic of the beauty products and automatic sliding doors.

A man in period clothes and long, uncombed hair stands in a room in the film "Hocus pocus 2."

Doug Jones in the movie “Hocus Pocus 2”.

(Matt Kennedy)

Aside from a few complications involving the city’s geeky Halloween-obsessed mayor (Tony Hale), that’s all for narrative novelty. Hocus Pocus die-hards won’t be surprised by the reappearance of Winifred’s undead lover, Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones, slim, green and mean as in the first film). And, of course, following their 1993 rendition of “I Put a Spell on You,” the witches are forced to revive their Vegas-style lounge act here, this time while (what else?) crashing a Sanderson Sisters-themed costume contest — a self-congratulatory wink at how popular the hocus pocus phenomenon has become.

It’s also, at least in this semi-entertaining sequel, become a gentler, more sentimental thing than in its previous incarnation. Rather than suckle out the souls of Salem’s children, the witches decide to bolster their power with the Mother of All Spells and embark on an Into the Woods-style quest for ingredients. No one bursts into Sondheim here (a Blondie classic is the soundtrack highlight), but it all builds into a remarkably moving, even Sondheimian, warning to be careful about what you wish for. This sharpness sets it apart from the first film, as does the fact that nobody turns into a cat this time. We always have “Avatar” for that.

“Hocus Pocus 2”

Valuation: PG, for action, macabre/salacious humor and some language

Duration: 1 hour, 43 minutes

To play: Streaming on Disney+

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-09-30/hocus-pocus-2-review-bette-midler-disney ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ review: A Bette-middling Disney sequel

Sarah Ridley

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