‘Hocus Pocus 2’ Review: Bette Midler’s Campy Coven Re-Creates the Old Magic

Sisters! All Hallow’s Eve has become a night of frolic, where children wear costumes and run amok — and watch sequels to ’90s movies on Disney Plus. Spooky sequel Hocus Pocus 2 is Disney’s latest nostalgia-mining archive raid, reuniting witches Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy from the outrageous 1993 comedy.

Streaming now on Disney Plus, Hocus Pocus 2 begins promisingly. Like the original, it starts in the distant past — but where the first movie began with a small child murdered and three women lynched (quite a kickoff for a family movie), the sequel goes back to 1653 for the origin story of the young Sanderson sisters annoying the puritanical townsfolk of Salem, Massachusetts. It’s a fun opener that suggests all involved understand the assignment, particularly an eye-flashing Taylor Henderson as a young Winifred (complete with distinctive dentistry).

Cut to present-day Salem. It’s Halloween, but more importantly, a birthday, a boyfriend and a banned bash are causing drama for three school friends. The teen angst pales into insignificance when they inadvertently resurrect Winifred, Mary and Sarah, played with familiar over-the-top relish by Midler, Najimy and Parker. Once again those three spend the night causing trouble in the modern world, with the magical stakes higher than ever.

The first Hocus Pocus was a cackling cauldron of camp chaos, and that’s where the sequel excels: The three original stars zap back into their roles as if they’ve been conjured straight from the original (seriously, watch both movies back to back). They seem to be having a rollicking old time, hilariously stalking through the frame as one and firing off zingers with relish. SJP in particular steals countless frames with her comic capering in the background. In at least one scene the trio’s laughter seems real.

And it’s campy as all get out, of course. The original film was apparently something of a flop, but has taken on a new life as a Halloween tradition for kids and adults. Led by Anne Fletcher, director of Step Up, 27 Dresses, Hot Pursuit and Dumplin’, the makers of Hocus Pocus 2 know this all too well. The Sandersons launch into a fabulous but inexplicable musical number the moment they’re resurrected (which leads to an excellent jump scare, so I’ll allow it). Ted Lasso star Hannah Waddingham gives the three stars a run for their money in the vamp stakes, and the trio even crash a drag show surrounded by alumni of RuPaul’s Drag Race done up as the infamous Sanderson sisters. Which is all a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, what should be a crisp 90-minute romp loses some of its sparkle in the second half. As the teen leads, Whitney Peak and Belissa Escobedo are engaging but have very little to work with. None of the new characters turn out to be that interesting, with Sam Richardson barely given any lines that qualify as jokes. Tony Hale especially is stuck in a thankless role as the town’s deeply unfunny mayor whose main personality is a baffling running gag about toffee apples, or something.

As the story progresses, the anarchic energy of earlier scenes gets bogged down in boring Harry Potter-esque action/adventure, complete with dueling lightning blasts in an underlit forest. Possibly thrilling for modern youngsters raised on a diet of more intense peril than the original offered, but it does go on a bit.   

Like the recent Pinocchio (another Disney Plus retread), Hocus Pocus 2 is yet another modern film that’s frustratingly murky. Day scenes fade under a desaturated palette that doesn’t fit the colorful material at all, and night scenes are often too dark to see what’s going on. Seriously, Disney, take that Mickey money and invest in some lights.

Minor quibbles, however. For all its flaws, it’s a million miles better than previous seasonal Disney Plus ’90s reboot, the utterly dismal Home Sweet Home Alone. The reunited Midler, Najimy and Parker running amok (amok, amok, amok) bring enough of that ol’ black magic to carry this whimsical caper and keep it from feeling like too much of a cash-in. There’s even a touch of pathos added to the lives of the hilariously fiendish Sandersons. And if all else fails, the original still holds up.

Hocus Pocus 2 throws mostly the same ingredients into the cauldron, but it’s still a powerful witches’ brew. Come, we fly!

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