Review: ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ (candle, virgin, moon)

By avoiding most of the usual plot pitfalls, the sequel is the delightfully spooky story the original always wanted to be.

The Salem legend of the child-devouring Sanderson sisters — Winifred, Mary, and Sarah (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy) — is well known, including persisting rumors of a brief sighting of the witches in 1993 before vanishing again. In present day, Becca (Whitney Peak) is turning sixteen on Halloween, an event of quiet celebration marked with her friends Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) and Cassie (Lilia Buckingham)… except Cassie has gravitated toward the in-crowd away from her witchy childhood friends. The current owner of the former-Sanderson-residence-turned-magic-shop is Gilbert (Sam Richardson), who gifts Becca with something special for their annual ritual, reminding her a witch gets their powers on their sixteenth birthday. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s no secret that Hocus Pocus circa 1993 was best when leaning into the musical stagecraft of its witch leads and worst when employing every cheesy kiddie trope of the decade; it’s generally accepted that appreciation for the original is a combo of marketing and nostalgia that hasn’t aged well as a whole. The announcement that all the original witches were returning sounded promising, but legacy sequels have a tendency to reuse well-trodden tropes: redeeming irredeemable yet popular villains to become heroes, rehashing the same beats with a bigger effects budget, and so-called smarter characters making the same rookie mistakes. The question fans never want to ask is, “After almost thirty years, is this the best you could come up with?”

It’s satisfying to discover a sequel not only different than imagined but better than expected. For all their willful silliness, what made the vile Sanderson sisters interesting was how dangerous they could be when they tired of distraction. An expanded backstory hints that while the sisters chose evil, they were also presented with the means to fulfill their choice — their treasured grimoire Book — because the Sandersons weren’t the only game in town. Paralleled against present-day teens drawn into Winnie’s new plan to survive another sunrise with her kin, the sequel hits the right beats, intelligently expands the material, and leverages what succeeded in the original.

Viewers will still need to forgive the eye-rolling anachronistic prose Disney has peddled from The Sword In the Stone’s Merlin to Aladdin’s Genie; all the world’s a stage, and the Sandersons are always looking for it. Plot details are meticulously set up, allowing the heroes opportunities to shine. Unlike the smarmy characters of the original film, charmers are everywhere in the sequel, from Tony Hale’s candy apple questing mayor to Froy Gutierrez’s incidental bully Mike, and Doug Jones returns as one-kiss zombie Billy Butcherson. There’s a genuine all-ages innocence about the story resisting the usual pessimism that doesn’t feel dumbed down, a rare feat considering they’re cussing in Star Wars now.

The reworked opening Disney logo should be the standard intro for anything Mousekespooky from now on, but how exactly did the witch museum move into town to become the Olde Salem Magic Shoppe? Make no mistake; next to The Nightmare Before Christmas decor and The Haunted Mansion merch, there’s plenty of Hocus Pocus product in stores just in time for Halloween, so there’s no avoiding the lingering commercialism. The film’s ending reportedly required re-shoots informed by test audience responses while trying to get the details just right, and happily it works. While Winifred, Mary, and Sarah may not return for thirds (or could they?) it doesn’t take witchcraft to notice the seeds of a backdoor pilot being sown… insert diabolical cackle here.

Hocus Pocus 2 is rated PG for action, macabre/suggestive humor and some language, and a cottage no longer smelling like Death. Hey, now…!

Three skull recommendation out of four

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