(Bloomberg) -- The thing about making an accidental camp classic is that it’s a feat you can’t repeat.
But that hasn’t stopped Disney from trying with Hocus Pocus 2.
Over the decades since its sleepy 1993 release, Hocus Pocus has become a Halloween favorite for nostalgic grownups and the kids who have to tolerate their tastes on movie night. It’s played every year during spooky season on ABC’s platforms and streamed on Disney+ Over time, fans have been drawn to the frothy brew that combines Bette Midler, using beaver-sized prosthetic teeth to chew up the scenery; airheaded sidekicks Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker; and a scrappy kids-vs.-monsters vibe that was special to films made in the 1980s and ‘90s. (Part of the camp appeal of such classics as The Goonies and The Lost Boys is that the special effects from the era look as if they were duct-taped together by MacGyver.)
The plot of the original was as harebrained as it was unimportant: The Sanderson sisters Winnifred (Midler), Sarah (Parker), and Mary (Najimy) were active witches in Puritan-era Salem, Mass. After sucking the life out of a young girl in an attempt to keep themselves forever beautiful, as witches are wont to do, the trio was sentenced to be hanged. At the last moment, Winnifred cast a spell that allowed them to be resurrected by a magic black candle on a Halloween night years later, at which point they would have until sunrise to suck the life force out of a fresh child so they could live forever. Typical.
As the 30-year anniversary of that film neared, Disney realized it was sitting on its own old black candle: a beloved property whose original cast was still alive and working. An attempt to conjure up the old magic was too tantalizing to resist.
The new film begins in encouraging fashion, as we’re introduced to the witches in 1653, when they were children. Young Winnifred (Taylor Henderson), Sarah (Juju Journey Brener), and Mary (Nina Kitchen) are causing a ruckus in historic Salem, brilliantly channeling the mannerisms of the older witches we know so well. With Tony Hale (Veep, Arrested Development) as a ridiculous and vengeful town preacher and Hannah Waddingham (Ted Lasso) as a crafty witch who gives them their iconic spell book, the ingredients for a proper potion seem to be on hand.
But alas, this segment of the film—just like any of those crazy nights where you have to find a child to kill before the sun comes up and you die forever—is far too short. Soon we’re in the modern day, following friends Becca (Gossip Girls’s Whitney Peak), Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) as they navigate high school, friendships, and living in Salem—which, naturally, has a thing for Halloween. A black candle is again lit, the Sanderson sisters return, and we’re off to the broom races.
The three girls happen to be in the woods when the sisters return to life, and witness as the sisters immediately launch into song—Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back, to be specific—restyled as The Witches Are Back. Midler, Parker, and Najimy are as fully committed to the silliness of the roles as ever, and in moments like this their performances are a joy.
Still, as the young girls watch from the shadows, one, in a self-aware nod, whispers to another: “Who are they performing for?”
And this, sadly, is a question the movie—from 27 Dresses director Anne Fletcher—can’t seem to answer. Is it for fans of the original, who will notice the referential Easter eggs scattered throughout, including a nod to Penny and Gary Marshall’s cameo in the first film? Or is it for young children, who Disney thinks are looking for a message of hope and togetherness?
As much fun as Midler and Parker seem to be having (Najimy is given nothing to do) it can sometimes seem that the intended audience for this film was … whatever grand wizard at Disney was writing the checks. The movie is not scary, hilarious, suspenseful, or original. It is sometimes charming, but it lacks magic.
The cheerily unimportant plot, a neat mimic of the prior film, doesn’t help. The Sanderson sisters are on a mission to gather ingredients to cast a very evil spell, the trio of kids must try to stop them using a set of very limited tools, and there’s a flash mob of people in Halloween costumes. You get it.
Some very promising setups never quite lead to anything, such as a Sanderson sisters drag competition, hosted by Rupaul’s Drag Race star Ginger Minj. The actual sisters compete in it, and lose. Despite the obvious opportunity, nobody has to lip synch for their lives.
And did I want to see the Sanderson sisters try to navigate a modern-day Walgreens? Obviously, yes. Was I curious about what would happen if one of them accidentally activated Siri? Sure, fine. Did either scene live up to its comedic promise? Sadly, no. The movie could have dipped much more heavily into a witch’s weird brew while still offering feel-good, family-friendly fare. It’s not a good sign when the two Roombas that Najimy ends up using as her “broom” get more laughs than some of the leads.
One can hardly blame Disney for trying, though—the urge to re-create old magic can be very hard to resist. Plus, who doesn’t like throwing on a costume and getting back together with longtime friends ? It is Halloween, after all.
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