For certain millennials of a certain age (myself, perhaps, included), there’s something fittingly ritualistic about the consumption of 1993 witchcraft comedy Hocus Pocus, a film set, and set to be watched, on Halloween. It’s as tied to the day as bobbing for apples and being scared of teenagers, the kind of lived-in practice that happens without thinking about it, leading to huge, unquestioning pockets of affection, less for what it contains and more for what it represents. In situations like this, when nostalgia can overwhelm objectivity, the prospect of adding to the story is inherently fraught, any excitement over the new tempered by adulation for the old.
So like many fan favourite follow-ups, Hocus Pocus 2 is stuck, trapped somewhere between different times, audiences and tones, trying to do so much yet, in this instance, achieving so very little. It’s structurally more akin to a remake, one that aims to appease older diehards while being accessible to newcomers, a not impossible task (recent rehauls of Chip n Dale and Scream managed to do this well enough) but one it struggles with throughout, broomstick barely hovering off the ground. At times it feels more like an extended, if joke-free, SNL skit than a real movie, giving us the iconography we want but without any of the soul, propulsion or bare necessity we need to go with it, something that exists because it could rather than should.
As Sam Richardson’s local historian/gift shop owner awkwardly reminds us, it’s been 29 years since the Sanderson sisters (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy) last showed up in Salem (why they didn’t wait for it to be a clean 30 is a mystery) and since then their legend has become commercialised and, for some, rewritten. In a clumsy, and at points heinously acted, cold open, we travel back to when the three sisters were children and expelled by the locals for being too unconventional, bucking the male-dominated culture of the time by refusing marriage and finding solace in the woods and the witch (a spirited Hannah Waddingham) who teaches them how to be independent. So while the first film began with the three witches sucking the life out of a small child, this one sets them up as radical girlbosses (they are later referred to as “ahead of their time” and “misunderstood”), a strangely miscalculated softening (notably not a single child is murdered this time around).
The Sanderson sisters were never as sadistic as, say, Roald Dahl’s witches but they were clearcut villains, nourished and re-energised by inhaling the lifeforce of children but in 27 Dresses director Anne Fletcher’s conflicted sequel, they’ve been sanded down to dust. There are, of course, interesting narratives about Salem’s historically lethal patriarchy and how witchcraft can be a liberating force for women but I’d argue that a Hocus Pocus sequel might not be the best place to explore them. It’s a contemporary touch done with a heavy hand and is most discordant in the sugary finale as the tone swerves to moist-eyed emotion and the power of sisterhood, taking us so very far away from where we came from. It reminded me of the de-fanged Mean Girls musical on Broadway as vicious bully Regina George is turned into a feminist badass (“Never apologize for being a boss!” she says in one limp humanising scene). Even the jock bully here is just a dumb dope. Is it bad to want baddies to still be … bad?
Again, the witches are pitted against the younger generation, this time embodied by friends played by Whitney Peak and Belissa Escobedo (both strong if never young Thora Birch strong), and again, there’s a frantic mission to stop an evil plan but it’s all just a thin trace of the original with the stakes less defined and the dynamic between the teens less involving. The dialogue is leaden with exposition, there are weird, indulgent musical sequences (that perhaps serve as a tease of the inevitable Broadway musical in the works, an admittedly intriguing prospect) and there’s a Walgreens sequence that’s so aggressively branded it feels like we’re watching a Super Bowl ad. The makers also seem confused about the rules of the world we’re spending time in with one snippet showing characters watching the original on TV. So in Hocus Pocus 2, Hocus Pocus exists which begs too many questions to even begin trying to answer (I tried, got a migraine and promptly gave up).
Naturally, the returning trio are all as game as ever, committing to the bit despite dialogue from screenwriter Jen D’Angelo that lacks the fizz they deserve. The shift from murderous menace to mild mischief also gives them less to sink their teeth into and the culture clash comedy of the first is inevitably less pronounced with less of a gap in time and the only real attempt to comment on this revolving around a pair of helpful roombas (from Walgreens!), which is somehow even less funny that it sounds.
This coming Halloween, it’s likely that many families will be watching Hocus Pocus 2 together, excited by the prospect of a tradition shift. Next Halloween, I doubt they’ll be watching it again.
Hocus Pocus 2 is now available on Disney+