1993’s Hocus Pocus was an oddity at the time of its release. One of the first theatrical duds in Disney’s history (though not a total disaster), the film about Salem witches coming back to life to kill children on Halloween night had a more vigorous life in the aftermarket on TV and VHS. Kenny Ortega’s original film wasn’t terrible, but a confused vantage point and clunky story beats only compounded into mediocrity despite its seasonal antics and memorable leads.
In 2022, direct sequels for below-average movies from 30 years ago by major studios have been engendered largely because of streaming services. What 10 years ago would have been considered “made-for-TV” or even “direct-to-video” is now garnering the attention of millions simply because such “made-for-streaming” products are funneled through fewer outlets in similar ways that served the ubiquity of even the worst TV shows in the ‘60s due to there being only three networks. Translation: viewers have become captive audiences.
By all reasons, Hocus Pocus 2 should not only have failed to exist, but should never have been as good as it is. More an example of a proven formula than an impressive improvement over the original, this sequel begins with the Sanderson sisters (the villains-in-name-only from the first film) in 1653 as young girls in Salem, Massachusetts. The eldest Winifred (Taylor Henderson) is evading the Christian townspeople after she refused to partake in an arranged marriage (which feels like strange commentary since I’m fairly certain the church has always been staunchly against arranged marriages). She and her sisters convene in the forbidden forest where they’re unexpectedly greeted by Mother Witch (Hannah Waddingham) who informs them that Winifred is indeed a witch as well.
It’s here where the Sanderson sisters are gifted the magical spell book that aids them in wreaking havoc upon their return some 300 years later in 1993. Well, another 29 years have passed now and a young occultist (Whitney Peak) accidentally summons the previously-captured trio (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy), who return to Salem once more in 2022 in hopes that they can survive the night and thus gain immortality.
Directed by Anne Fletcher (Step Up, The Guilt Trip), Hocus Pocus 2 has a better script (by Jen D’Angelo), but remains as unenjoyable as its predecessor, and for much of the same reasons. While there’s more of the appropriate attitude towards its child-killing villains, we’re still delivered more of the misdirected pathos that was inherently stitched throughout the original. Midler and company are still in place to make the audience laugh, but at least we’re not rooting for them anymore.
The story arc is the same here, although the ancillary characters have changed and become less interesting – aside from the scene-stealing Tony Hale as the bubbly, caramel apple-obsessed town mayor – with another arbitrarily discovering that she, too, is a witch.
A lot of details are mirrored this time around, but never in ways that are better. Perhaps the most egregious discrepancy comes during the sequel’s costume party. The original featured one of cinema’s greatest costume party sequences ever, blending traditional getups with Madonnas, Elvises, and a skeleton rock band. The best costumes the sequel can come up with are an array of interpolations on the Sanderson sisters themselves. The rest of the outfits are so boring and forgettable that the camera can’t even bear to stay put on any of them for longer than a split second.
If you’re going to recreate something iconic, you’d better figure out what made it so to begin with. This is the same studio that just produced the superior Cruella, with its scene-stealing costumes, after all.
But recreating scenes is typically a sign the filmmakers are less interested in shameless fanservice than they are playing it safe to appeal to a new audience under the guise of a “long-awaited sequel.” Other than the three sisters, the only other returning character is Doug Jones as the fan-favorite Billy Butcher.
Hocus Pocus 2 isn’t blind nostalgia; it isn’t concerned with what happened to the Dennison family or any of the other humans involved the first time around – nor is there much else it can logically do other than bring these witches back once more to wreak much of the same havoc 30 years later (a prequel or spin-off may have worked better for the more devoted audience members).
Likewise, Hocus Pocus 2 also can’t ever benefit from that very nostalgia that so draws new and old viewers into the inexplicable grasp of the original merely because it exists in the past, and on Halloween no less. If you’re a diehard fan of the 1993 movie looking for an earnest follow-up, you’ll mostly find a hassle-free recreation for a younger crowd. Ironically, I’m sure this new film will be better appreciated by those who don’t already love the first film to begin with.