‘Hocus Pocus 2’ Is Double The Toil And Not Worth Your Trouble [Review]

Jan 1, 2023

At the very least, the Mouse House avoids the laziest possible mistake with “Hocus Pocus 2.” This sequel to the childhood and camp classic, which arrives nearly three decades after the original bewitched audiences, does not amount to just a slightly updated remake of the first film for a cynical cash grab. But all that really means is opening up director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Jen D’Angelo to make a different set of mistakes.
“Hocus Pocus 2” operates in Disney’s other dominant mode: when it casts a spell of preachy progressivism. Well, at least nominally progressive, through elements like an ethnically diverse ensemble whose identities are never explored, as well as drag queens relegated to the edge of the frame. This is the Ralph Wiggum squeaking “I’m helping!” meme writ cinematically through an overwrought learning experience for the characters. Naturally, any film geared toward younger audiences contains within it some level of instructional morality. But the studio’s recent supply of family-friendly fare seems to operate under the principle that their films are first and foremost message delivery systems, with the quality of stories being secondary.
READ MORE: ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ Trailer: The Wicked Sanderson Sisters Return For More Comedic Mayhem On September 30
It’s as if an executive summary slide in a corporate strategy birthed “Hocus Pocus 2” – “power is meant to be shared” is the key takeaway – and then the creative team reverse-engineered the screenplay. The sparks of joy and life that made the original “Hocus Pocus” feel almost incidental to the proceedings here. The first film neither felt the need to prove its own existence nor the impulse to be aware of its importance. It was just a modest, unassuming adventure for kids that used simple setups and familiar fears to create engaging scenarios, memorable characters, and involving dilemmas.
The overdetermination of “Hocus Pocus 2” is so ridiculous that it takes nearly half an hour before it wheels out its main attractions: the return of the Sanderson Sisters. When Winnie (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy) finally re-emerge into the land of the living, it’s as if the film knows the audience needs some entertainment. So naturally, they break out into a bizarre and unexplained cover of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back.” At least the sequence plays to the strengths of Anne Fletcher, who came up through dance and choreography, with musical numbers … but it’s nonetheless bold to jump straight into kitsch.
The witches are back, indeed, and dropped into the middle of convoluted teen drama. Unlike its predecessor, which operated within the easy plot conceit of a moody teenager forced to be the new kid in town, “Hocus Pocus 2” burdens viewers with trying to understand the overly involved dynamics between a quartet of quarreling high schoolers on Halloween. There’s a clear alliance between wannabe witch Becca (Whitney Peak) and her pal Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) as they engage in a cold war with the popular Cassie (Lilia Buckingham) and the dunder-headed jock Mike (Froy Guttierez). Vague references to unseen, yet apparently consequential, events indicate that differences have arisen and are becoming too large to bridge across.
Yet once Becca and Izzy resurrect the Sandersons, all that mental energy expended to keep up with the large cast of new characters proves to be for nothing. The level-headed teens of Salem, Massachusetts become the losing end of the comic-straight double act of “Hocus Pocus 2.” The comedic coven gets all the good bits to play with in the film as D’Angelo leans quite heavily into the fish-out-of-water elements of three 17th-century women experiencing 2022’s commodities. After exhausting any number of ill-advised gags, the Sandersons take the wheel of the plot engine and embark on a quest of vengeance against the town’s mayor (Tony Hale) after realizing he’s a distant descendant of the colonial-era chap who once condemned them.
The relative lack of panic in town at the prospect of the witches’ return, given the havoc they once wrought, is quite head-scratching. Until a zealous magic shop owner (Sam Richardson) reveals his fascination with the occult grew out of him observing their witchy wonder in the original film, it almost feels like “Hocus Pocus 2” wants to pretend that those events didn’t even happen. The film is so deadset on going its own way that it ignores the impact its predecessor had on either side of the screen.
It doesn’t feel like anyone involved with this sequel even liked the original “Hocus Pocus.” The film demonstrates little understanding of the Sandersons beyond what lives on in camp and meme culture. “Hocus Pocus 2” tries to gin up a little bit of conflict within the sisterhood by creating artificial fissures. While they tend to move as one unit, it’s clear that Winnie constitutes the most powerful leg of the tripod. But when the script tries to pit Mary and Sarah against their sibling, the drama falls flat because there’s no real characterization for it in the rest of the film. This version of the Sanderson sisters is just caricatured, with about as much dimensionality as the mannequins at a Spirit Halloween store.
Curiously, the only moment when the trio really seems to come to life is within the confines of a Walgreens. This extended sequence of glorified #sponcon manages to at least find some modicum of delight as the Sandersons interact with various cosmetic products. It’s a rare successful sequence within “Hocus Pocus 2” that points to a better venue to revive these characters: as part of a commercial like E.T. for Xfinity or Crocodile Dundee for Australian tourism. “Hocus Pocus” fans wanted a new movie, but Disney just gave them a mascot appearance masquerading as a sequel instead. [C-]

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