Before I start this review, I feel the need to admit something that has given me the gay gasp more than once. I never saw Hocus Pocus growing up. In fact, I didn’t even see it at all until a few years ago. I was an angsty high school kid when it came out in 1993, and the marketing made me feel a bit too old for the film. My husband, who’s a few years younger than I am, was the right age for it back then, and it became a cherished Halloween tradition for him to watch the film. When I finally did see it, I found it charming and cute if a bit predictable, but I could totally see why it developed the fandom that it did. In fact, I re-watched the original film right before seeing the new sequel, and I found it to be even more charming the second time around.
It’s more than I can say for Hocus Pocus 2, which may or may not benefit from a second viewing but who’s qualities don’t immediately demand a second viewing in the first place.
Yes, the Sanderson Sisters are back because another virgin lit another black flame candle. This time, Winifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy), and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), are trying to cast a spell to maximize their power so they can finally get their revenge on Salem. They have until sunrise to complete their task, and the only ones trying to stop them are Becca (Whitney Peak) and her friends, who know a few tricks of their own.
There’s not much of a plot beyond that, nor do most of the characters have much of an arc. It pretty much tries to mimic the beats and energy of the first film as much as it can, but it often fails to elevate the material. There are a lot of elements here that work, with a lot of them carried over from the original film, but the final product simply doesn’t carry the same magic.
Part of what prevents the film from working is its complete lack of pacing and voice. The film begins with an over-long prologue set in 1663, when the Sandersons were teenagers, showing the origin of their antipathy with Salem and how they acquired their Book of magic. We go from there to modern times, where we’re introduced to Becca and her friends in a series of shorthand scenes that try to establish the characters as quickly as possible, seemingly so it can get that part out of the way and get on to bringing the Sandersons back. It makes the ostensible protagonists feel like extras in their own story because we all know why we’re really here.
Granted, Becca and her friends are fine characters in their own right, but they feel untethered. To be fair, Max and company didn’t get much more establishment in the original film, at least judged in terms of minutes on screen. But those minutes were spent much more efficiently and with an aim to firmly anchor them in the milieu. If you were a cynical person (hello), you might even say that it belies the new film’s core thesis. It’s not here to necessary tell a story but to provide some holiday-appropriate, marketing-focused fanservice.
What fanservice there is, though. The Sandersons are for the most part just as amusing and hilariously wicked as they were the first time around, even if they lack the unique bite they once had. Over the years, the sisters have become legitimate camp icons and official Disney product, and the film knows this more than anyone. It knows what you want, and it’s here to give it to you. Did you love “I Put A Spell On You” in the first film? Well, here you get two songs, including one in the first 20 minutes. Trick or treat, baby.
That’s the film’s best asset, though. Midler, Najimy, and Parker all dive into their roles with a special kind of enthusiasm. They were all perfectly absurd in the original, and their performances here take that vibe and strengthen it with nearly three decades of symbiotic fandom goodwill. These are three performers playing the classics to diehard fans, and they don’t disappoint…at least until the final act, which tries desperately to soften and humanize the sisters for no good reason. We came here for wickedness; don’t ruin this evil thing we got going.
What prevents the film from really achieving anything resembling the status of the original is its lack of vision and and overwhelming sense of obligation. The original had a distinct brand of chaotic whimsy and a kind of spooky effervescence that was undeniably charming. The new film has whimsy, but its chaos is less than constructive, It’s a jumble of ideas, throwaway plot points (and characters), and isolated set pieces randomly thrown together. The original film had writers who’d done primarily horror films and a director experienced in camp (Kenny Ortega had choreographed Xanadu and directed Newsies). The new film has a writer who’d done a few episodes of lower-tier comedies and a director primarily known for rom-coms of wildly varying quality. To say that the new creative team had a hard time keying into the scary/funny vibe of the original is a massive understatement.
Beyond that, there are many ways in which the film just looks cheap and rushed. Most of the forest scenes were filmed on a set that couldn’t look more artificial if it tried; the giant full moon backdrop looks straight out of Faerie Tale Theatre…which I’d like to remind people was a public television show from the 80s. The quality of the special effects is wildly inconsistent, with some of them no better than what you could achieve with an app on your smart phone. Despite some admittedly excellent aerial camera work in a few scenes, this doesn’t look an eight-figure-budgeted movie from the world’s biggest studio.
The film also doesn’t know where to focus its attention. Yes, Becca and her friends are the “main” characters, and the actors playing them are likable and doing their best. But the Sandersons are the real draw here, and the film trips over itself trying to balance the narrative. The script doesn’t know what to do with Becca’s group, and they get developed seemingly at random with no solid base to grow from. Their arc is telegraphed from scene one, and the film doesn’t do anything to make their story unique or interesting.
The film does, however, take the last 29 years into account in its setting. Becca is essentially a young Wiccan, and she and her friends know about the magic powers of herbs and stones. The appeal of the Sandersons themselves has achieved a nearly metatextual level of fandom in-universe, including people who idolize them for their outrageous behavior and ignore or rationalize their evil ways (like…you know…how they eat children). There’s just enough savvy here to add a little bit of spice to what is otherwise just a pale imitation of the original film. I’m not saying this makes the film terribly exciting; just self-aware enough to be amusing. At the very least, it goes out of its way to acknowledge its queer fan base, including cameos by RuGirls in Sanderson drag and showing a gay couple watching the original film in one scene.
Hocus Pocus 2, despite the appealing performances of the cast and the occasional moments of genuine hilarity, is really just a stumbling attempt to recreate the unique magic of the original. To say there’s an ingredient or two missing in this magic is putting it mildly. It doesn’t cast a spell so much as it weaves a mild enchantment. Cute, amusing, even sparkling at times, but ultimately just a glamour hiding a confused and directionless story. The Sandersons are just as wickedly entertaining as ever, but they’re done dirty by the weak and shallow script.
But at least this is still a better comeback for them than that awful 2020 Halloween special. WOOF.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / C+
“These are three performers playing the classics to diehard fans, and they don’t disappoint…at least until the final act, which tries desperately to soften and humanize the sisters for no good reason. We came here for wickedness; don’t ruin this evil thing we got going.”
The problem with this “evil thing we got going,” is where the movie’s idea of “evil” came from in the first place. The Salem Witch Trials resulted in the unjust murder of innocent people based on the paranoia and hearsay of the colonial population that followed “the rules.”
The original film employed 1993 sensibilities, read: colonizing and patriarchal to define “woman,” “witch,” and “weirdo,” all of which boil down to anything not white, not male, and not heteronormative. Sure, the Sanderson sisters murdered children, but that source material was predicated on the 400 year-old accusations of colonizers with larger political motivations than actual evidence. Thus, to make the Sanderson sisters “evil” because they are women, witches and publicly outspoken against a white, male zeitgeist is cruel, uneducated, and woefully out of touch. So it is difficult to have a conversation about witches today without discussing the realities of this injustice. And you cannot have a discussion about the attempted erasure of “inconvenient” woman without People of Color and LGBTQ+.
Teen protagonist Becca proclaims “Power is meant to be shared,” the ultimate messaging of Hocus Pocus 2. While some may view writer Jen D’Angelo and director Anne Fletcher’s commentary on the nefarious impacts of systemic racism, sexism and homophobia as heavy handed, perhaps “heavy handed” is exactly what is needed right now. Hollywood has (thankfully) become more aware of its own complicity in the horrors of the erasure and persecution of marginalized humans so it makes perfect sense why Hocus Pocus 2 made the choices it made.