2 out of 5 stars

The original Hocus Pocus (1993) wasn’t a box office success (grossing $45M and costing $28M to make), nor was it particularly well-reviewed by critics. But it’s a great example of how constant replays on television cement something as a childhood favourite to be cherished in adulthood, then passed to the next generation as a family tradition to watch at a particular time of year. This happens most often with Christmas films (Santa Clause: The Movie being a prominent example for the over-35s), but Halloween has arguably less family-friendly content and Hocus Pocus has filled a need over the past three decades.

Talk of a sequel to exploit the belated popularity of Hocus Pocus gained momentum a decade ago, with Bette Midler keen to return to her lead role with co-stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy likewise open to reprising their roles. A straightforward remake was briefly considered—an idea Midler was against—until a sequel was given the go-ahead with director Adam Shankman (The Pacifier) before he stepped aside to focus on Disenchanted (2022), meaning ex-choreographer and filmmaker Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses) replaced him.

Hocus Pocus 2 opens with an extended prequel set in 1653, explaining how the Sanderson Sisters were banished from Salem by defying the church’s wishes for Winnifred to marry someone, before encountering a Mother Witch (Hannah Waddingham) who triggers their interest in witchcraft after giving them a certain magic spellbook with an eyeball on its cover. But the real story begins 29 years after the events of the first movie, when Winnie (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy) and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) Sanderson last returned on Halloween night. Modern-day Salem teens Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) accidentally summon the witches back by lighting a Black Flame Candle they’re gifted by magic shop owner Gilbert (Sam Richardson), then have to try to undo their mistake before it’s too late.

Any sequel will never recapture the magic of the original because that movie’s become a seasonal favourite for two generations, even if you disliked the film because it wasn’t part of your own upbringing. Hocus Pocus 2 is a pseudo-remake because so few characters even remember Halloween 1993’s events, or know anything extraordinary happened, only now with female friends replacing the cute brother-sister dynamic of before. Some of the changes to update this story make sense or are arguably more interesting, but this sequel suffers from making the Sanderson’s more likeable and sympathetic (losing any sense of menace they once had), and by adding too many references to its predecessor with repeated jokes and moments of physical comedy that flags it as pure nostalgia-bait.

There’s potential in the idea of a young girl with aspirations of being a witch having to contend with the very real prospect of the Sanderson’s, and in how the town’s likeable Mayor Jefry Traske (Tony Hale) is a descendent of the horrible reverend that banished them from Salem hundreds of years ago. But for the most part, Hocus Pocus 2 takes an unexpectedly long time to resurrect the three witches and stars of the show, renders them instantly toothless as they unnecessarily start singing, and then struggle to tell a story worthy of their resurrection.

Midler, Jessica Parker, and Najimy do an excellent job stepping back into these characters, and it helps that time has been kind to all three. Midler in particular doesn’t miss a step despite now pushing 80, and while Najimy’s noticeably slimmer and Jessica Parker’s middle-aged, squint and everything’s fine. If you’ve come to watch those three actresses do their thing and wallow in their onscreen chemistry, watching them call back to old jokes and lines (“amuck, amuck, amuck…”), Hocus Pocus 2 will scratch an itch.

But it’s hard to imagine anyone choosing to watch this over the original, as whatever filmmaking improvements are now available don’t factor too much into a cheap movie designed to draw people to Disney+ out of curiosity, nostalgia, or just in search of something to throw on in the buildup to Halloween. It’s a shame the screenplay by Jen D’Angelo isn’t stronger, but a lot of interest in the film simply evaporated once you’ve seen a few minutes of the Sanderson’s and realise they’re no longer credible threats. I’d actually have rather seen a spin-off for the briefly-seen Mother Witch, as Hannah Waddingham (Ted Lasso) is a more enticing and intriguing presence who’s itching to camp things up and play evil in a family-friendly manner. It’s a shame her role here is a glorified cameo.

Anne Fletcher’s direction is unremarkable but only disappointing in the sense her background’s in dance and choreography, so why are the movie’s song-and-dance sequences so lame and uninvolving? It becomes a bit disheartening to watch Hocus Pocus 2 careen from scene to scene, failing to develop any sense of wonderment and magic in what’s happening, then going for lazy ideas like bringing back zombie Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones) and not really knowing what on earth to do with him.

The new characters fade into obscurity because the script isn’t interested in them the same way Hocus Pocus cared about Omri Katz and Thora Birch in ’93. And that’s a major problem once we reach the climax and realise nothing about these people or the situation they’re facing has left any sort of mark. We’ve just been watching the Sanderson sisters goof around and remind us of the movie we’d prefer to be watching, and will likely still turn on every Halloween… as this tardy sequel becomes the Dumb and Dumber To (2014) of the franchise.

A post-credits scene teases Hocus Pocus 3, but without this film’s nostalgic excitement to fuel the marketing, that’s a difficult prospect to get excited about.

USA | 2022 | 103 MINUTES | 2.20:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Anne Fletcher.
writer: Jen D’Angelo (story by David Kirschner, Blake Harris & Jen D’Angelo; based on characters created by Mick Garris & David Kirschner).
starring: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Sam Richardson, Doug Jones, Whitney Peak, Belissa Escobedo, Tony Hale & Hannah Waddingham.