Review: ‘Hocus Pocus 2’

‘Hocus Pocus 2’ is a sequel that’s not only worth the wait but also a stronger film than the original.

1993’s Hocus Pocus is a film that has unquestionably grown on people in the 29 years since its debut. Not well-received by critics at the time, audiences have come to embrace the film as an annual Halloween movie must-see. Whether its the over-the-top nature of Bette Midler’s performance, the quotability of it (“I smell children!), or simply the 90’s nostalgia dripping from the film, Millenials love it and have been pining for a sequel for the better part of three decades.

And after several starts and stops and rumors and failed attempts, Disney found the right time and the right place to unleash the Sanderson sisters once again in Hocus Pocus 2, a sequel that’s not only worth the wait but also a stronger film than the original. Directed by Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses, The Proposal) Hocus Pocus 2 smartly retains the loveable pieces of the first film’s DNA and upgrades it by telling a more coherent story that serves as both the heart of this film and retroactively makes the plot of Hocus Pocus a little more digestible.

Following in the footsteps of Hocus Pocus, the sequel opens in 17th-century Salem; however, in what turns out to be maybe the most important choice the creatives behind it made, the audience is introduced to Winifred, Sarah, and Mary as children, with Winifred acting as the guardian of her two sisters. And while the younger versions of the Sanderson sisters are already displaying their trademark traits, they’re not yet the monstrous, child-eating coven of witches they’ll turn out to be. Rather they are a group of young girls without parents who the town has grown to disapprove of, especially Winifred, whose family unit is threatened to be torn apart by the Reverend Traske. A distraction allows the young Sandersons to escape and leads them to the Forbidden Woods where they meet the Mother Witch who introduces them to Book and sets them on the path to becoming the witches hanged in Salem years later.

Kathy Najimy as Mary Sanderson, Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson, and Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Sanderson in Disney’s live-action HOCUS POCUS 2, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Matt Kennedy. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

For all the laughs they gave audiences in the first film, the choice to go deeper into the past of the Sanderson sisters allows the audience to empathize with them, possibly for the first time and serves as an investment into an emotional arc that pays dividends in the film’s third act. The young Sanderson’s trip into the Forbidden Woods forges a bond between them and with the audience and interestingly deepens the mythology of what now looks like it might just be primed for a run as an expanding franchise.

The same Salem woods that serve to tell the true tale of the Sandersons also work as the primary setting of the present-day part of the tale. With the events of 1993 so far in the past, the true nature of them has been forgotten and the Sanderson sisters are looked at as a fun part of the local lore, with a Sanderson cosplay contest part of Salem’s Halloween celebration and a spooky store, run by Sam Richardson’s Gilbert, all coming into play over the course of the plot. Anchoring the events of the present are a trio of friends, Becca (Whitney Peak), Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), and Cassie (Lilia Buckingham) whose transition to high school has put a strain on their status as lifelong besties. Their struggles to stay close come to a head on Becca’s birthday, which happens to fall during a full moon on All Hallow’s Eve. Gilbert’s birthday gift to Becca sets the Sandersons free in Salem where they definitely want to hunt down more virgins and eat more kids, of course. However, the sisters also seek revenge on the Traske family who set them on their path to becoming monsters over 300 years ago.

(L-R): Belissa Escobedo as Izzy and Whitney Peak as Becca in Disney’s live-action HOCUS POCUS 2, exclusively on Disney+. Photo by Matt Kennedy. © 2022 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

And so the stage is set for another Halloween adventure, much like the events of the original Hocus Pocus, but whether it’s because it’s shiny and new or because it’s a more well-developed script, Hocus Pocus 2 plays as a much more charming, magical, heartfelt and easier-to-watch film than the original. The best fun, of course, comes from seeing Bette MidlerSarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy return as the Sanderson sisters, but it doesn’t come across as cheap fun and doesn’t seem to wear off as the film moves on. If fact, an argument can be made that the trio, especially Midler, bring something extra to the trio this time around. Yes, they revisit old jokes (when there aren’t enough brooms to fly, a Swiffer and some Roombas will do) and bust out a couple of musical numbers, but nothing here FEELS old or unearned. They even find enough for Doug Jones to do as Billy Butcherson to make his appearance more than just nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake 

And ultimately, “more than just nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake” is probably the best way to describe what’s so wonderful about Hocus Pocus 2. Much like Top Gun: Maverick (settle down, I’m not comparing the quality of the movies here), Hocus Pocus 2 brings back familiar characters to a familiar setting to tell a somewhat familiar story, but also breaks new ground by choosing to spend a little more time developing the characters and drawing out what, in this case, probably should have always been the core of the story of this coven of witches: they are all each of them has. It seems that in taking its sweet time to deliver on the sequel, Disney stumbled into a Goldilocks goldmine in terms of timing: after Top Gun: Maverick and ahead of Avatar: The Way of Water. And while Hocus Pocus 2 won’t have a box office total and won’t be talked about as one of the best films of all time, its rewatchability is going to be pretty high and bring it back into the conversation every Spooky Season, just like its predecessor.

Hocus Pocus 2 will stream on Disney Plus beginning September 30th.

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