Hocus Pocus 2 Fails to Cast a Magical Spell
It is Halloween night in Salem, and 16-year-old birthday girl Becca (Whitney Peak) and her best friend Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) head to the local woods to try and cast a few harmless spells and light a mysterious black candle given to them by friendly occult shop owner Gilbert (Sam Richardson). They inadvertently awaken the Sanderson sisters Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy), and while the child-eating witches would love to consume the souls of their teenage benefactors, they have bigger plans for their latest resurrection.
And what are those? There’s a spell in their sentient, one-eyed book that will give a witch “ultimate power,” and all it takes to cast it are a few gruesomely random ingredients and the blood of their enemy. Lo and behold, the new mayor of Salem (Tony Hale) is an actual, bona fide direct descendent of the imperious Puritan minister who hanged them back in the 17th century. It’s up to Becca and Izzy to save the mayor and his only daughter Cassie (Lilia Buckingham) from the Sanderson sisters’ malevolent machinations, and it will take actual magic to set things right and put all three back in their graves, this time for good.
Can’t say I’m a fan of 1993’s Hocus Pocus. Other than the sublime casting of Midler, Parker, and Najimy as the Sandersons, it’s never done much for me. I find there to be few laughs and minimal, child-friendly scares. I rarely cared about anything that was going on, and while director Kenny Ortega does stage a couple of energetically creative sequences, overall the narrative concocted by writers David Kirschner, Mick Garris, and Neil Cuthbert is a ponderous waste of time.
But time has proven kind to this supernatural comedy. It’s built quite the cult fan base. As such, there’s been talk of a second feature for at least a decade. The moment Disney unleashed its streaming service Disney+, it’s been pretty much a foregone conclusion that the studio would find a way to bring Midler, Parker, and Najimy back to these characters.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, for reasons I will never truly grasp or understand, Hocus Pocus 2 is one of the more eagerly anticipated sequels of 2022, and I imagine many are cackling with glee over the rebirth of the Sanderson sisters.
The good news? I did enjoy this new motion picture far more than its predecessor. Director Anne Fletcher (Step Up, The Proposal) brings a musically lyrical touch that’s rather nice, and Peak, Escobedo, and Buckingham don’t get lost in the massive shadows cast by their three superstar castmates, making far more of an impression than the kid actors in the original ever did. There’s also a stupidly goofy gag involving the mayor’s attempts to acquire a caramel apple only available to Salem’s residents on Halloween night that brought a silly grin to my face. Hale’s handling of this running joke is jovially sublime.
The bad news? None of that means I can in good conscience recommend the sequel. While I’m moderately certain fans will enjoy it, and while there’s little here that’s egregiously awful (unlike the 1993 picture), there’s also not much that made me sit up straight and pay close attention, either. While there’s thankfully a more feminine bent to the proceedings this time (likely courtesy of Fletcher and screenwriter Jen D’Angelo), this is still paint-by-numbers comedic nonsense and little more.
I do think one of the chief missteps that kept me from fully engaging with the material is the inclusion of a backstory that fleshes out the tragic history of the Sanderson sisters in a bit more detail. This prologue, while well executed, is also strange. There is an attempt to mitigate and minimize the heinous activities of the witches, and sadly it does not work. While what was done to them as teenagers was unforgivable, so are roughly three centuries of murder, mayhem, and running gleefully amok. They kill children, for goodness’ sake, so forgive me if I have trouble engaging empathy for any of them, at least based on the information that’s been provided in either film.
The other item I didn’t care for was — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — Midler. Not her performance: it’s as good as ever. No, what annoyed me was how much Fletcher centralized Winifred Sanderson, forcing Sarah and Mary even further into the background than they were in the 1993 production. While it’s always a treat to watch the two-time Academy Award nominee strut her stuff with such euphoric aplomb, I do wish the sequel had afforded Parker and Najimy the same courtesy. They’re wasted, and other than redoing some of what they did 29 years ago, Sarah and Mary are mostly nonentities who only serve to move Winifred’s story forward and not their own.
I admit that part of that is the point of all the supernatural baloney. Winifred is the key to what ultimately happens, so I do understand why she is so prominently showcased. But it still irritated me, and, as I didn’t feel a strong emotional attachment between the Sandersons, the climax didn’t work as far as I was concerned. Hocus Pocus 2 has more magic than its predecessor, but that does not mean it casts a memorable or lasting spell.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)