Hocus Pocus 2 Review: Sanderson Witches Can’t Break the Disney Sequel Curse
Hocus Pocus 2 is leaps and bounds better than most second helpings of Disney nostalgia, but the sequel still can’t climb out of its own grave.
It’s unlikely even Disney knew they had a classic Halloween scene on their hands when they put microphones in front of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, and said “sing.” Yet the original Hocus Pocus of 1993 conjured real magic from the moment Midler teased, “I put a spell on you, and now you’re mine” to the scene’s finale in which Midler cursed all the adults of Salem to dance until they die! Thirty years on, that spell endures still, making the scene and the movie it’s borne from a stone cold holiday classic.
Hence Hocus Pocus 2’s fundamental dilemma.
Redoing such iconography is always the greatest intimidation, yet biggest audience expectation, that comes with remakes, reboots, and legacy sequels. And it’s a kind of credit to Hocus Pocus 2 that the movie is unafraid of going full tilt for it. In fact, the most lavish of the three(!) musical sequences in the sequel is bigger than anything seen in the original, at least in terms of extras: Midler and company, as the resurrected Sanderson Sisters, stand once more on a stage in front of the adults of Salem, and this time have a whole Halloween festival at their command. So when the Beaches star belts Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” the denizens just don’t dance, they become a proverbial army of synchronized ‘70s rockers out to do Winifred Sanderson’s bidding.
It’s bigger, yet infinitely smaller. Among the more pedantic, narrative issues of the retread is that there’s no explanation for how Winifred knows a Blondie song, whereas in the original movie Winifred is seen eyeballing a sexy Halloween skeleton singer as he belts Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins’ classic. More importantly, however, the sequence in the original felt surprising. It came out of nowhere and was giddy while also being a little sinister. The three evil witches were turning all the authority figures in the movie, including the protagonists’ parents, into damned marionettes, leaving the children alone. It was a bold narrative twist on top of a spectacular musical sequence. And it didn’t feel derivative.
Of course it’s unfair on some level to be comparing a new, perfectly innocuous family movie on streaming so intensely with the original, and yet the problem with nostalgia sequels is they retrace their predecessors’ footprints so studiously that it’s impossible to separate them. Not that Hocus Pocus 2’s target audience of 12 and under will necessarily care. And as a family entertainment, the sequel is not without its charms, cursed or otherwise.
Set almost exactly 30 years after the ‘93 film, Hocus Pocus 2 primarily follows three adolescent girls who once were their own makeshift coven of wiccans: Becca (Whitney Peak), Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), and Cassie (Lilia Buckingham). The trio used to celebrate Becca’s Oct. 31 birthday every year by going into the woods and practicing spells. But after entering high school, Cassie has drifted away, favoring the company of her boyfriend and the cool kids.
So Becca and Izzy are down to a dyad when they go into the woods on Halloween night and light a Black Flame Candle, gifted to them by their goofy magic store owner Gilbert (Sam Richardson). Unfortunately, the candle works a little too well, when it summons the Sanderson Sisters of Winifred (Midler), Sarah (Parker), and Mary (Najimy) back from the dead. The trio immediately break into a song, and are then breaking bad… especially after they realize the estranged Cassie and her nerdy father (Tony Hale) are descended from the Puritan reverend who banished them from Salem more than 300 years ago!
Hocus Pocus 2 works well enough whenever its three leading witches are onscreen. Three decades may have passed since these three actresses last committed to running amok, amok, amok, but each is visibly elated to be back with the other two, doing the same shenanigans again. They sing, they cackle, and they pratfall with a relish that’s infectious.
Granted, most of the witchery they get up to is just repackaged bits from the 1993 movie, but there’s a passion among the stars that’s undeniable. Whereas so many belated Disney sequels and remakes—from this month’s soulless Pinocchio to last year’s dire Home Alone retread—seem to come from a place of fiduciary obligation, the affection director Anne Fletcher and these actresses have for those performances is undeniable.
Yet the movie really only is a showcase to revisit those performances and bask in their campiness; it’s a reunion special masquerading as a movie. While it’s nice to finally have a Disney movie about kids going on an adventure again, unlike the brother-sister dynamic between Omri Katz and Thora Birch in the original movie, or even the tragedy of the animatronic black cat they called Thackery Binx, there’s no emotional investment by the screenplay or the direction in Becca’s storyline. It’s perfunctory, like most of the plot machinations throughout the movie.
The result is a fairly staid and listless viewing experience in which parents are left waiting for the next set-piece where the Sanderson Sisters recall a better movie from their own childhoods. Some of those set-pieces work, including when the invaluable Doug Jones reprises his role as Billy Butcherson, the Good Zombie from the original movie, but it’s all old, pointy hat.
The only real innovation of the Sandersons is a prologue set during their childhoods in the 1600s, and a more benign variation on the first movie’s climax, both of which seem ready to recontextualize the Sandersons as antiheroes. But that new subplot seems undercooked since the movie still needs scenes of the weird sisters thrilled at the notion of eating children’s souls. It’s a muddle that lacks the clarity of vision (and the overall budget/meticulous Halloween decor) of the ‘93 movie.
With that said, this writer is aware that he’s no longer the target demo of this film, nor are the parents who will be watching Hocus Pocus 2 all October. Children are the ultimate arbiters of whether this movie is worth their time, and much like how one generation embraced the first film on the Disney Channel, Hocus Pocus 2’s faults will undoubtedly be mooted by this film’s core Disney+ viewership who won’t mind if it’s more of the same, but worse.
I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it, but if you want to share in a spooky treat with your family and pass the legend of the Sanderson Sisters down to the next generation, don’t let me stop you. On Halloween, poisoned apples are sometimes considered treats.
Hocus Pocus 2 is now streaming on Disney+.