In recent years, Hocus Pocus has taken on a kind of cult status. It’s become a heavily polarizing film, without much in the way of overlap between those who think it’s an all-time Halloween classic (indeed, I have multiple friends who call Hocus Pocus their all-time favorite movie) and those who think it’s a steaming shitpile. It’s a heated and ongoing controversy as to why people like this movie, whether it’s a legitimately bad movie, and whether there’s more to the appeal than mere childhood nostalgia.
Without coming down on any one side, I think it’s fair to say that the film is certainly memorable. Hocus Pocus clearly has its own identity, such that nobody will ever mistake it for any other film. Furthermore, there’s an argument to be made that the film’s crude humor (in particular, the emphasis on virginity as a plot point hasn’t aged well at all) is wildly out of place in what’s ostensibly a kids’ movie. Then again, there’s another argument to be made that any decent Halloween picture needs a subversive kind of edge.
Perhaps most importantly, the movie is fun. Even if the movie is bad, at least it’s bad in a way that’s fun to watch. In particular, the core trio of Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker are clearly having the time of their goddamn lives from start to finish as they find new and exciting ways to vamp. Hell, it’s little wonder there have been so many impersonations over the past thirty years — who wouldn’t want to try on those incredible costumes and try imitating those characters?
Ultimately, that may be the big reason why the film is so divisive and why it’s an ongoing question as to what makes Hocus Pocus good or bad: Because it’s an elusive and ongoing question as to what makes a movie (most especially this particular movie) fun.
Yet here we are with the long-awaited Hocus Pocus 2, in which Midler, Najimy, and Parker are brought back with the task of trying to figure out what made the original so beloved and making it happen a second time after 30 freaking years. I’ll give this much to the people at Disney, at least they didn’t try to make it another goddamn remake. So anyway, what have we got?
Well, as if to prove my earlier point about how much fun it is simply to imitate the Sanderson Sisters, the sequel opens with an origin story in which Winifred, Mary, and Sarah are respectively played as preteens by Taylor Henderson, Nina Kitchen, and Juju Journey Brener. More importantly, the prologue establishes the importance of covens (read: friends, family, trusted loved ones, etc.), reintroduces the plot point that witches consume children to stay young and beautiful, and sets up a “Magicae Maxima” spell to make a witch all-powerful and yet it’s forbidden for some unspecified reason.
Flash forward to Salem in the present day. We’re introduced to the trio of Becca, Izzy, and Cassie, three teenagers respectively played by Whitney Peak, Belissa Escobedo, and Lilia Buckingham. As Becca’s birthday just happens to fall on Halloween, the three of them have a long-standing tradition of partaking in witchy rituals and horror movie marathons to mark the occasion. But in recent months, Cassie’s hooked up with a lunkheaded jock (Mike, played by Froy Gutierrez) and has since fallen out with her two childhood friends. More importantly, she’s interested in growing up and moving past the childish Halloween pastimes that Becca and Izzy are still clinging to.
Oh, and there’s also the teeny little detail that Cassie’s father (Jefry Traske, played by Tony Hale) is the local mayor, tightly wound and obsessed with his image in light of the upcoming election. I might add that Cassie’s family dates all the way back to the founding of Salem. Indeed, Tony Hale also plays the reverend who made a huge point of antagonizing the young Sanderson Sisters back in the prologue.
Anyway, because this is a town that uses the Witch Trials — and especially the Sanderson Sisters — as a huge tourist draw, the Sanderson Sisters’ old cottage has been converted to a magic shop run by a gaudy stage magician (Gilbert, played by Sam Richardson). Gilbert not only brings us a quick recap of the previous film, but he’s also got the Book under lock and key, he’s good friends with our wannabe witches Becca and Izzy, and he’s got all the spells and ingredients we need to get the plot running. A one-stop plot convenience shop!
All of that established, we’re half an hour in and all the pieces are in place. We’ve got our black flame candle courtesy of Gilbert, we’ve got our full moon on Halloween, and we’ve got our virgin to light the candle. Even better, this just happens to fall on Becca’s 16th birthday, supposedly the night when a young witch gets her powers. All the pieces are in place to bring the Sanderson Sisters back after 29 years… and they immediately launch into a splashy song break upon resurrection. It took them half an hour to get to what we came here to see, but the filmmakers were obviously keen to make up for lost time and the returning actors get to vamping like they haven’t lost a step.
But there’s a problem. A rather big one.
See, the first movie introduced the Sanderson Sisters as they were draining the soul of a young girl. Then they came back and immediately attacked our protagonists. Compare that to the sequel, in which the Sisters are introduced on their first harmless steps to witchhood, then they come back with a huge splashy musical number, they’re immediately and easily tricked by our protagonists, and we’re back to the Sisters’ fish-out-of-water antics as 17th-century relics in the modern world.
Yes, the Sisters were heavily comedic characters in the first movie, but only after the film took the time to establish them as a legitimate threat. For all their scenery-chewing and mugging to the camera, the first movie never let us forget that these witches are heartless monsters with access to powerful magic, not only willing but perfectly able to straight-up murder children. A significant part of what gave the first film its gleefully subversive edge was in how the witches made being evil so much fun. That took a delicate balance sorely missing in the sequel.
With the sequel, the filmmakers seem to be under the delusion that we can skip all of that established legwork and go straight to the comedy. Sorry, but that doesn’t work nearly as well when we’re dealing with protagonists who are objectively more knowledgeable in the ways of witchcraft and (with all due respect) the returning actors are visibly three decades older. The circumstances are so radically different that the tone doesn’t work without laying the same groundwork again.
On the other hand, Doug Jones gamely returns to play Billy Butcherson (with Austin J. Ryan filling in for the prologue), and his mouth isn’t stitched together this time. As a direct result, Jones gets a lot more room to develop the character and really play up to Billy’s full comedic potential. Hell, even Book is made into a fully-developed character with its own arc and everything. All nicely done.
But then we have our protagonists. Right up front, Cassie talks about the childish pastimes of Halloween and her eagerness to grow past them, introducing what could’ve been any number of heartfelt themes about growing older in contrast to the witches’ pursuit of eternal youth. Nothing is ever done with this. Granted, it doesn’t help that the witches are after omnipotence this time instead of eternal youth, but developing the protagonists a bit more might’ve helped.
It’s heavily implied that Becca is a budding young witch, well on her way to developing her own powers. This development arc could’ve been used to open up the world in a huge way, and the prospect of an apprentice witch or a potential rival to the Sanderson Sisters brings all sorts of compelling possibilities for interplay between the witches. Alas, Becca’s nascent powers turn out to be nothing more than a Plot Convenience device that allows her to instantly and effortlessly get out of any problem whenever the plot needs her to. Not that Becca needed any kind of advantage, as she’s consistently able to outsmart the Sisters with the flimsiest of ruses.
But the real tragedy here is in the themes of family and friendship. It works perfectly well for the Sisters, as the filmmakers are good enough to take the established Winifred/Mary/Sarah power dynamic and build upon it in a satisfying way for the climax. But with regard to the Becca/Izzy/Cassie dynamic, their whole thematic arc comes off as pathetically undercooked.
It baffles me that the prequel was a good ten minutes shorter, yet it was so much more effective because the pacing was so much tighter. While both movies had extended comedic sequences to show the Sisters making asses of themselves, there was far more of an effort to cram in world-building and character development and exposition as efficiently as possible.
Compare that to this movie, in which the first half-hour alone had maybe fifteen minutes of plot. Tony Hale gets a whole subplot to mug for the camera, and his character turns out to be pretty much entirely pointless. While I understand that the Sisters are the main attraction here and they’re certainly funny to watch, their antics do precious little to advance the plot or sell themselves as a serious threat. What’s worse, they take away time that might have been used to make our protagonists more solid and their development arcs more compelling.
Hocus Pocus 2 is hollow. It works well enough as a comedy, but the filmmakers didn’t even try to make it work as a horror. As deeply flawed as the Max/Dani family dynamic was in the previous film, it was still presented with far more sincerity and heart than the flat and undercooked friendship arc of our three new protagonists. The campiness is here and in full effect, but the edge is entirely gone. The filmmakers clearly understood that we came to see Midler/Najimy/Parker mug for the camera, and I respect that, but they committed the fatal error of treating their broad comedy as an end in itself and not as a means of building the world or telling a story.
The filmmakers had some good ideas about what to do with the returning elements — again, major kudos for developing Book and Billy Butcherson as they did — but with no idea about how to keep those returning elements fresh or how to build a new and exciting story around them. More depressingly, the filmmakers were either unwilling or unable to produce something scary enough or bold enough to be worthy of the original film.
I expect this movie will be the subject of yet another passionate and polarizing debate as to whether it’s a good movie or a bad one. But I seriously doubt anyone will argue that it’s better or even on par with the original.