Monday, June 17, 2024

Hocus Pocus 2 Is Cutesy, Not Campy

Like all truly great camp classics, Hocus Pocus needed time for its legend to grow. When it was first released in 1993, the Halloween tale about three witchy sisters—played with panache by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker—stomping around modern-day Salem and trying to steal the souls of children was a critical and commercial misfire. It was a movie for kids that was surprisingly adult in nature, brimming with sexual innuendo (virgins lighting candles!), devilish concepts, and layered cameos that no child would understand. (The late Garry and Penny Marshall, real-life siblings, playing an argumentative couple, for example.) But there was something about the film’s heady mix of high-octane performances, sheer camp, and cheeky punchlines that endured. Over time—thanks in part to tireless TV reruns and Midler’s sheer promotional determination—its magical blend of 90s kitsch turned Hocus Pocus into a perennial, all-ages Halloween favorite.

Nearly three decades later, Disney (or rather, its streaming arm Disney+) has finally managed to deliver a sequel, Hocus Pocus 2. Directed by Anne Fletcher, the film brings us back to modern-day Salem, where the Sanderson sisters have gone from being a local legend to becoming a major commercial part of the town’s tapestry. Their old, cobweb-lined cottage is now a shabby chic tourist trap run by a diehard Sanderson sister aficionado, Gilbert (the effervescent Sam Richardson). The store is frequented by two dark arts-obsessed teen girls, Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), who make it a point every Halloween to go into the woods and cast spells. They’re usually accompanied by their third best friend, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), but she’s too cool to hang this year, drifting out of the friend group and on to more teenagerly things, like throwing a house party behind her dad’s (Tony Hale) back.

If you’ve seen the original Hocus Pocus, you can guess the contours of the plot: on All Hallow’s Eve, Becca lights the black flame candle and inadvertently brings Winifred, Mary, and Sarah—Midler, Najimy, and Parker, animatedly reprising their roles—back from the dead. Once they’re back, the sisters run amok, resuming their evil mission of stealing kid souls to stay youthful and alive forever.

To that end, the sequel is more of a reboot than a proper catch-up from the events of the first film. Hocus Pocus 2 is focused on entirely new characters (plus Billy Butcherson, in an expanded role, and Book, in a slightly more…anthropomorphic role), appealing directly to the preoccupations of Gen Z. Hocus Pocus 2 is sweeter, gentler, and pointedly more inclusive than its hilariously crass predecessor, trading in winking jokes about hell and sex for lite feminist jokes about the modern beauty industry. (Who needs a child’s soul to look young when you can go to any drugstore and buy retinol?) It’s all about friendship and sisterhood, drawing a parallel between the Sandersons and the three best friends trying to chase them back into the grave. The darkness of the original is defanged; this time, there’s no bus driver making slick sex jokes, no mom dressed up in Madonna’s cone bra, no grimy party where the adults are instructed to dance, dance, dance until they die! If Hocus Pocus was a kid movie aimed at adults, Hocus Pocus 2 is a teen movie aimed squarely at tweens.

It’s probably the only way to tell the story in the modern age, though it may come as a disappointment to hardcore Hocus Pocus fans who miss the crass flavor of the original. And while Peak and Escobedo turn in energetic performances, they don’t have the same kooky chemistry as their predecessors. In the original, the narrative was led, and laced with tension, by angsty teen Max (Omri Katz), his wisecracking little sister Dani (scene-stealer Thora Birch) and his smart crush Alison (Vinessa Shaw). That trio proved to be a winning mix that Hocus Pocus 2 can’t replicate, despite its best efforts by adding comedic powerhouses like Hale, who is underutilized, and Richardson, who charms and charms.

But, of course, the main reason to watch the sequel is to be reunited with Midler, Najimy, and Parker, who reprise their roles with vigor, and thoughtful adjustments; Parker, for one, gently tones down Sarah’s airy sensuality, lending her more nuance. Hocus Pocus 2 trades deeply on that nostalgia, riding high off the goodwill of seeing those actors in their beloved witchy garb again. Though it doesn’t steer close to the campy magic of the original, that’s as good a reason as any to return to Salem.

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