By Emma Picht
Boston University News Service
The first Hocus Pocus was a movie aware of its genre and audience of kids. Despite being panned by critics at the time, the campy performances of Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy incited joy and passion that have lasted their fans into adulthood. The premiere of Hocus Pocus 2 had the advantage of nostalgia and an established fanbase, which also served as added pressure. However, the movie’s creative team united for this fan-awaited sequel and created something that not only lived up to the expectations of the original but entertained and transported the audience on its own as well.
The film opens with a flashback to Salem (as the first film did) focusing on the young Sanderson sisters. Young Winifred, played by Taylor Henderson, stomps around town terrifying adults with her signature imposing teeth. Henderson did a masterful job of imitating Midler’s mannerisms, postures and comedic timing. She and Tony Hale clearly enjoyed working together and the first six minutes of the film were a delightful historical farce. Everyone on screen was dedicated to matching the large energy and personalities that the Sanderson sisters demand.
The transition to modern times is noted by a sudden green and grey filter which did not match the rest of the film’s tone. In fact, the plot surrounding the friendship of the main three teenage girls had no depth and served as nothing but a way to further the plot. However, Froy Gutierrez as Mike, one of the girls’ boyfriends breaks up the stiff dialogue with oblivious and idiotic interjections characteristic of a classic bimbo. His serious delivery of each line and fear at the mention of “aquafaba” demanded chuckles, and his otherwise unnecessary presence was welcome.
Eventually, the black-flame candle is lit by a virgin under a full moon on All Hallows Eve and the stars of the show can return. The witches’ entrance was confusing and eliminated my suspension of disbelief as they began a brief musical number, performing to no one. Although the dialogue acknowledges the odd moment, it didn’t excuse the poorly executed fan service. The first movie’s music number “I put a spell on you” was set in a music hall with a captive audience and the sisters were mistaken for performers. (An experience that is replicated almost moment for a moment later in this movie with “One Way or Another”) The music arrangement followed Midler as she set the stage and transitioned the audience. Unfortunately, that level of intentionality or care was lacking in this opening number and the introduction of the next one.
The clever teenagers manage to lure our leading witches to a prominently displayed Walgreens where the three actresses can shine with their comedic improvisation of 17th-century witches reacting to modern technology. Winifred drinks a bottle of face lotion for its “youthful glow,” and they terrorize the employees about the lack of children’s souls available. In each conversation, the three leading ladies are battling for dominance. The comedic quips of Kathy Najimy are surprisingly effective at stealing moments from Midler and Parker, both powerhouses themselves.
Despite the Walgreens saga ending with some canon-contradicting information about the magical properties of salt, each witch flies away on an item found in the store. Winifred a Halloween display broom, Sarah a clear product placement Swiffer mop, and Mary with two vacuum robots strapped to her feet. I assumed the two Roobas were no more than a visual gag that would return occasionally to aid a punchline. I was completely caught off guard when they became plot-relevant by freeing the Sanderson sisters from a circle of salt by vacuuming it up.
The dull but urgent dialogue from the teenagers is broken up by the reappearance of Doug Jones as Billy Butcherson. Jones is best known for his work with Guillermo del Toro as the Faun in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the Amphibian Man in “The Shape of Water.” His training as a mime and contortionist makes Jones a physical force on screen. The 1993 Hocus Pocus did not make good use of his abilities and the sequel made no such mistake. His stiff movements and jerky reactions were that of a child’s nightmare version of Frankenstein’s monster. His rapport with Sam Richardson as “Gilbert the Great” was funny and lighthearted, intentionally contrasting the serious nature of the teen squad’s goal to banish the Sandersons forever.
In true Disney fashion, the witches are defeated with the power of friendship, but not before Winifred makes a fateful error. Despite Midler’s captivating monologue about the value of her sisters and loneliness, the final scenes fail to tug on the heartstrings of those departed from their nostalgia for this franchise.
The presence of the original cast was included, but not forcibly inserted as fan service. Although some fans are upset to not see the original children return there were plenty of easter eggs for those who loved the first movie. Not only is there a clear Madonna costume amongst a hypnotized flash mob, but drag queens make an appearance at the Sanderson sister costume contest. Midler and Parker are gay icons on their own, but the original film has a tight hold on drag performances each fall across the United States. It was nice to see Disney pay homage to its fan community, even though the drag queens did not join the sisters for their rendition of “One Way or Another.”
The premiere of Hocus Pocus 2 garnered a lot of fan attention. Social media was flooded with fans designing and sewing costumes for the premiere and Disney’s D23 convention. Midler, Parker and Najimy have embraced the passionate community that kept this franchise alive, interacting with fans online and complimenting cosplayers. Although the after-credits scenes hinted at a potential third installment, which may excite fans, this sequel was concluded and self-contained by the permanent death of the three witches. A third movie would potentially contaminate the cult classic’s success and curated experience for fans at Halloween.