Synopsis: It’s been 29 years since someone lit the Black Flame Candle and resurrected the 17th-century sisters, and they are looking for revenge. Now it is up to three high-school students to stop the greedy witches from wreaking a new kind of havoc on Salem before dawn on All Hallow’s Eve.
Stars: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Doug Jones, Whitney Peak, Lilia Buckingham, Belissa Escobedo, Hannah Waddingham, Tony Hale, Sam Richardson
Director: Anne Fletcher
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I was in theaters 29 years ago to see Hocus Pocus during its original run, not in October of 1993 when it should have come out but balmy mid-July when the theater was a graveyard. Why Walt Disney Studios, usually so good at timing their releases to coincide with holidays or other marketable events, would choose to release this Halloween-themed film when autumn weather was far from everyone’s minds is still a puzzle I can’t figure out, and releasing it on the same weekend as Free Willy was also the kiss of death. The movie tanked, not just at the box office but with critics as well. Yet there I was, with my friends having a grand time and wondering why more people weren’t getting in on the camp fun of it all.
As with most witches’ brews, Hocus Pocus needed a little more time to simmer before it was ready for mass consumption. The movie finally found its audience through airings on the Disney Channel and becoming a permanent fixture on ABC Family’s 13 Nights of Halloween (oh, how I loved that yearly line-up!), and they grew into the ardent fanbase Disney sought out all those years earlier. Suddenly, a hunger for more Hocus Pocus grew. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, the film’s stars playing the witchy Sanderson Sisters, always spoke highly of their time making the movie, expressed being open to a sequel, and Midler would delight audiences when she would don her movie look at concerts and public appearances. Walt Disney theme parks even added the Sanderson Sisters and a live stage show to their annual Halloween themed extravaganzas (I saw it, it was terrific)…but what about that sequel?
After 29 years and many rumored starts, Disney finally conjured up Hocus Pocus 2, and it’s due in no small part to the audiences that have come to embrace the original movie over time. It’s not like the first movie had a message of great value or importance to strike a nerve that would pass through generations. It was simply a film that didn’t get its fair shot the first time, but when evaluated through a less fractured lens, it was seen as a quality Halloween family outing. Could a sequel recapture that same magic and please fans while bringing another new generation into the circle?
Time was the key, I think. While Hocus Pocus 2 isn’t groundbreaking, it’s a welcome follow-up that nods to its predecessor but doesn’t bow at its feet. Director Anne Fletcher (taking over for original helmer Kenny Ortega) keeps the film light and airy, maintaining an almost episodic feel to the proceedings when the Sanderson Sisters are called back from the beyond under similar circumstances. First, though, a prologue has to fill in some blanks that trace the origin of the sisters as children in Salem back in the 17th century as they meet up with Mother Witch (Hannah Waddingham, The Hustle) after they are ostracized from their community. This sequence is here to play up the visual gag of young Winnifred (a droll Taylor Paige Henderson), who looks, talks, and acts like a young Midler, buck teeth and all. As a longtime fan of all things Hocus Pocus, I enjoyed this look back, and Henderson is a total scream nailing each Winnifred mannerism down to every shady side-eye.
The main story concerns Becca (Whitney Peak, Molly’s Game) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), best friends in modern-day Salem, celebrating Becca’s 16th birthday with their usual ritual of pseudo-witchcraft in the local woods. This year, they’re doing it without Cassie (Lila Buckingham), their third pal who has chosen her boyfriend over them this year. Armed with a candle given to them by Gilbert (Sam Richardson, Werewolves Within), the owner of a Magic Shoppe which occupies the old Sanderson Sister home, they begin their conjuring and find that this candle is…special.
Before you can say ‘In comma-coriyama’, Winnifred (Midler, The Glorias), Mary (Najimy, Single All The Way), and Sarah (Parker, I Don’t Know How She Does It) have exhumed themselves from the ground and launched into one of several Vegas-y numbers featured throughout the film. Determined to get her magic book back and stick around longer than a Halloween evening like last time, Winnifred forces the mortal girls to help the three resurrected witches gather the ingredients for an all-powerful spell. As Becca learns more about the powers she may harbor, she and Izzy spend the rest of the night attempting to battle back the witches without losing a most important friendship.
The stakes in Hocus Pocus 2 are a bit all over the map. Whereas in the first film, there’s a focused goal the Sanderson Sisters are after, for the sequel, Fletcher (Hot Pursuit) screenwriter Jen D’Angelo juggles several different storylines that don’t always work on the same level. Anything with the original stars is great fun, with Midler shining brightest as always with the best material. Najimy and Parker have a bit more to do here, but they are often relegated to the back for Midler to take center stage. Midler’s performance is the most delicious fun, so why not let her have as much screen time as possible?
As for the others involved, it’s hit or miss. I liked the relationship created between Peak and Escobedo, but oof, I’m sorry to say that Buckingham is a real dud. After a while, you realize that the two girls are better off without their absent friend, and so are we because Buckingham’s lackluster performance sucks the energy out of every scene. Richardson spends most of his time with Doug Jones (The Shape of Water) returning as zombie Billy Butcherson, creating a strange buddy comedy. I would have liked more of Waddingham, but who knows what the future might bring…you may want to stay until the final credit has run.
Filmed on soundstages as opposed to actual locations (though we do go outdoors every once in a while), Hocus Pocus 2 doesn’t have the same polish as the first movie. Still, it does come off as feeling like Disney spent the appropriate amount of money on it to give the fans what they have been craving. You can tell the film had its ending reshot because of some iffy digital work near the conclusion, but aside from that, the effects are handled smoothly too. If this is the sequel we waited 29 years for, it was worth the wait – it doesn’t cheap out or cheat us on what we liked so much back in 1993.