Twenty-nine years ago, the Sanderson sisters, an abrasive trio of siblings, put a spell on Disney audiences. Or at least they tried to.
Kenny Ortega’s Hocus Pocus wasn’t initially met with critical or even commercial acclaim, but over the years the entertainingly odd Halloween film has gained a cult following. My younger sisters and I came to the movie years after its release — an accidental encounter while browsing channels. We relished in its weird, off-kilter tone. From then on, watching Winnie (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary (Kathy Najimy) chase young children through Salem, Mass., on Halloween night became our tradition.
Hocus Pocus 2
The Bottom Line
Honors the past without forging into the future.
Release date: Friday, Sept. 30 (Disney+)
Cast: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Sam Richardson, Doug Jones
Director: Anne Fletcher
Screenwriter: Jen D’Angelo (screenplay by), David Kirschner (story by, based on the characters created by), Blake Harris (story by), Mick Garris (based on the characters created by)
1 hour 43 minutes
Hocus Pocus 2, the highly anticipated sequel to the original Disney film, honors its history without knowing quite how to move beyond it. Directed by Anne Fletcher, the live-action comedy film bears the markings of a struggle between embracing existing fans and courting new ones. Recycled plot points, jaunts down memory lane and knowing winks at the broader fandom are rolled into the type of sleek CGI package that’s typical of Disney offerings these days. The result is a thin but satisfactory piece of entertainment.
What’s most interesting about Hocus Pocus 2 (besides its utility as a lesson in how you can’t bottle and resell nostalgia) is its star trio: Midler, Parker and Najimy reprise their roles with the same energetic kookiness that made Hocus Pocus beloved. You can tell they’re having fun.
The film opens with a flashback. Winifred Sanderson (Taylor Henderson) has just turned 16, the age at which a young woman finds out if she is a witch and, according to the colonial patriarchy, should wed. Winnie doesn’t know about the first part and is unhappy about the second. We see her storm into the house where she lives with her sisters, Sarah (Juju Journey Brener) and Mary (Nina Kitchen). There are slivers of the trio’s adult personalities — Winnie’s bossiness, Sarah’s docility and Mary’s acerbic asides — which keep this flashback from feeling exclusively perfunctory.
Sarah and Mary try to console Winnie — who has been asked by the town’s reverend (Tony Hale) to marry someone other than her beloved Billy Butcherson (Austin J. Ryan) — with compliments and gifts. Before they can make any headway, they find themselves running from Reverend Traske and the entire town of Salem. The sisters end up deep in the forest, where an encounter with a witch reveals to them that they are also magical beings. The importance of the Sanderson sister origin story becomes clearer later, but it’s hard not to squint at the film’s attempt to give the trio’s cruelty a pseudo-feminist rationale, as Cruella did with its protagonist.
Fast-forward to the present day and the Sandersons, as we know from Hocus Pocus, haven’t been seen in years. It’s Halloween again. The story of their defeat at the hands of three kids 29 years ago has been added to town lore. Becca (Whitney Peak), Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) and Cassie (Lilia Buckingham) are struggling with their friendship now that Cassie has a boyfriend (Froy Gutierrez). Becca plans to celebrate her 16th birthday party without Cassie, who she accidentally finds out is throwing a Halloween party at the same time. The three friends, obsessed with magic, once enjoyed a tradition of casting spells and toying with charms at their favorite spot deep in the woods. Not so much anymore.
After a tense moment between the three, Becca and Izzy proceed with their own plans. They visit a local magic shop run by Gilbert (Sam Richardson), a nerdy magic enthusiast obsessed with the Sanderson sisters (for reasons I won’t spoil here). He takes it upon himself to regale Salem’s youngest residents with stories about their lives. As a gift to Becca, Gilbert gives the teen a charmed candle — except he doesn’t tell them that. When Becca and Izzy light it at their secret spot under the glow of the full moon, they, like their predecessors in Hocus Pocus, revive the witches.
The Sandersons’ entrance — a brash sequence of the earth splitting, the moon dimming, lightning crackling and, of course, a song and dance — loosens Hocus Pocus 2 considerably. The film steps into its status as an event. Winnie, Sarah and Mary are back, and this time they want both to live forever and be the most powerful witches in the world. That last wish is new; maybe 30 years of dormancy makes world domination, a familiar goal of movie villains, more attractive.
In order to distract the sisters from feeding on their souls, Becca and Izzy take them to Walgreens where they promise youth in the form of retinol. In one of Hocus Pocus 2’s funniest bits, the sisters feast in the skincare aisle, drinking anti-aging elixirs and nibbling on face masks. They also run into a group of fans who ask to take a selfie, introducing the centuries-old witches to the power of Instagram filters.
Midler, Parker and Najimy have an electric presence on screen, their chemistry virtually unchanged in the decades between films. Their scenes are the most consistently enjoyable of Hocus Pocus 2 — the moments when it feels like everyone behind and in front of the camera are under their enchanting spell. The sisters slink and snake their way through Salem on Halloween night, making quips and jokes about the oddities of contemporary life with their signature sharp tongues and quick wit. They still have a thirst for evil and a disdain for children, but their bite is dulled by the film’s interest in softening them.
Outside of the Sanderson dynamic, Hocus Pocus 2 struggles a bit more, though not for lack of effort. There’s an endearing and silly friendship between Gilbert and adult Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones) that flexes the film’s potential for originality. But the teen-witch narrative that the film adopts is hard to gussy up, especially since after Hocus Pocus there was no shortage of such stories, from Halloweentown to Sabrina (and its reboot). It’s a struggle to muster the same enthusiasm for Becca, Izzy and Cassie’s sororal bond because their friendship doesn’t get enough screen time to make us care. Even as those girls move into focus, occupying more of the narrative, the Sanderson sisters remain the crown jewels.