Thursday, April 18, 2024

‘Hocus Pocus 2’ is An Amusing Cantrip

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I did not like Hocus Pocus when it first came out. The 1993 Halloween classic stars Bette Middler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker is about three bumbling evil witches brought back to life in present-day Salem. It was a movie that thirteen-year-old me-or present-day me could never really get into. My wife, Kori, on the other hand, grew up with it and cherished the film deep in her heart.

All of this is my way of telling you how I, a reviewer, who manifestly does not appreciate the original in any sense, came to be reviewing a sequel, shy of twenty years, on Disney +. Yet, to my delight, I found myself quite enamored by Anne Fletcher’s Hocus Pocus 2. I even got a little misty-eyed towards the end. It turns out Christmas isn’t the only holiday where anything is possible.

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Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), Winnifred (Bette Midler), and Mary (Kathy Najimy) come face to face with a Walgreens

Fletcher’s Hocus Pocus 2 does what many sequels do nowadays: tries to reinterpret the original through the lens of modern-day sensibilities and nostalgia. Jen D’Angelo’s script wisely stops short of attempting to white-wash the Sanderson sisters, but it does find a shrewd way to flesh them out a little more. Fletcher opens Hocus Pocus 2 with a scene set in Salem during the sister’s youth: the reverend Traske demanding young Winnifred (Taylor Henderson) must marry. 

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Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), Becca (Whiney Peak), and Cassie (Lilia Buckingham) struggle to survive the Sanderson sisters and High School

Being a teenager, she’d rather not. Nevertheless, Fletcher and D’Angelo do a solid job of setting up how the sisters were driven out of Salem not because they are inherently evil but because they refused to bow to authority. 

However, they became evil after meeting the Mother Witch (Hannah Waddingham) in the woods. She gifts them Book, the sentient book of spells, and wishes them a fond farewell. The girls then return to Salem to reap their revenge. Essentially, Fletcher and D’Angelo do a solid job of showing us how the Sanderson sisters were made and not born. 

The most surprising and delightful part of Hocus Pocus 2 is how it does what the original does while also putting the Sanderson sisters in the backseat. Hocus Pocus 2 instead focuses on Becca (Whitney Peak), Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), and Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), three friends who seem to be growing apart. Becca is a witch, but in the sense that she likes crystals and is mindful of the world around her. Her best friend Izzy is, shall we say, witchy curious. Meanwhile, Cassie seems more interested in her new boyfriend, Mike (FroyGutierrez), a himbo who doesn’t quite realize he’s being mean to Cassie’s friends.

Becca and Izzie are tricked into lighting the infamous black candle by magic shop owner Gilbert (Sam Richardson) when he gives it to them for their yearly ritual. Their annual ritual is lighting a candle in the woods, meditating, and then going home to watch scary movies. Richardson and the girls dish about the legend of the Sanderson sisters, and Gilbert suggests that maybe they aren’t evil, that the puritanical patriarchy of the time deemed them such.

D’Angelo’s script is doing a lot without stopping and telling us. Richardson’s Gilbert is doing what we all do: take complicated figures of the past and try to view them through a modern lens to humanize them. But in so doing, he is overlooking the genuine harm the Sanderson sisters caused. 

A fact he realizes when the sisters return and bind him to their will and force him to collect the ingredients for the ultimate spell “Power Maxima,” the power spell. A spell that makes the caster so powerful that both Book and Mother Witch specifically warn the sisters never to cast it. “Power is meant to be shared.”

One of the things I liked about Hocus Pocus 2 is how it takes time. Winnifred (Midler), Sarah (Parker), and Mary (Najimy) don’t show up until almost thirty minutes into the movie. Instead, Fletcher and D’Angelo let us get to know Becca, her friends, and the world around them. Fletcher fleshes out the world of Hocus Pocus 2. She allows us time with characters that, while funny, feel like characters you’d meet on the street. Even Mayor Trask (Tony Hale), Casie’s father, the nicest man in town, feels lived in.

Of course, the Sanderson sisters arrive to wreak their particular brand of Three Stooges witchery; they try to eat Becca and Izzy. But the two convince the witches that they aren’t teenagers but merely forty-somethings who have taken an eternal youth potion. This leads to a wickedly funny scene in which the girls take the Sanderson sisters to Walgreens and tell them all the beauty products have the souls of children ground up into them. One joke has Mary eating a beauty mask, believing it’s a child’s face.

I loved D’Angelo’s script and the way it would take these goofy turns without ever stopping to comment on how goofy it is. Even the musical scenes feel right at home, as the sisters break out into song from time to time. Her script does an excellent job of letting the characters talk without having every line be about the plot.

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Gilbert (Sam Richardson) thinks the time is ripe for the return of the Sanderson sisters

In one scene, Izzy complains to Becca about her mother. “My mom is shopping for snacks for the movie marathon, and she keeps sending me blurry pictures of cookies.” Fletcher enhances this by, at times, cutting to a scene in which a conversation is already in progress. At times Hocus Pocus 2 gives us a sense that we are peeping into this world, that beyond the frames lies a whole world we don’t get to watch. Fletcher doesn’t do this often, but even doing it once is refreshing in a world where films are compelled to tell you everything about everyone and leave nothing to the imagination.

The humor in Hocus Pocus 2 runs the gamut from the broad slapstick comedy to the darkly morbid, but in a way that never pulls you out of the film. The witches leave Walgreens on their brooms, Swiffers, and a couple of Roombas. The Roombas come into play later in the movie in a way that I did not see coming. 

The young cast does a remarkable job keeping up with Broadway legends. Peak, Escobedo, and Buckingham go toe to toe with Bette freaking Midler and aren’t blown off the screen. Parker and Najimy do a fun job of adding snide remarks and old petty arguments on the side, while Winifred tries to keep the trio focused.

Even Richardson, cursed as he is for most of the film, finds friendship and understanding in Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones). D’Angelo’s script cleverly uses their relationship to show how gossip can often supplant historical facts and how hard it is for the truth to win out over fiction.

I had such a good time that I was slightly bummed that the last thirty minutes felt rushed. Moments such as Becca learning she has powers because she is an actual witch are never given their moment. The girls must stop the sisters from casting their spell, healing the rift in their friendship, and saving Mayor Traske while Gilbert struggles with the consequences of his actions. Oh, and then Becca and Izzy also have to teach Mike that pointing out differences and calling them weird is a form of bullying. 

Poor Becca doesn’t have a lot of time to accept the fact she’s a witch with real powers. But a third-act action sequence cannot be denied and demands sacrifice.

It’s also odd that the film seems to be going against its earlier statement about how witches are made, not born but whatever. Either way, I was a little disappointed that a movie that has felt so well crafted with love has a scene in which characters shoot CGI lights at each other in a big climactic battle.

However, I can forgive this if only because of how the film resolves the Sanderson sisters. More and more films feel afraid to end things, favoring open endings and possibilities for spin-offs. While the possibility of Hocus Pocus 3 is more likely, Fletcher does a beautiful job of giving the Sanderson sisters a fond farewell. 

I am unashamed to say that I found myself tearing up as Winnifred realized that perhaps it was time for the Sandersons to move on. But unfortunately, time moves forever onward, and even witches can’t stop its march. Maybe it’s Midler’s talent to infuse such a broad caricature as Winifred Sanderson with a soul, but I couldn’t help being moved by what is essentially an old woman realizing that all things must come to an end. It is sad, but hope is always in the young. Perhaps Becca, Izzy, and Cassie could learn to be better witches than the Sandersons.

Hocus Pocus 2 is charming in the way it understands its legacy while never attempting to make the Sanderson sisters into misunderstood misfits. They were once when they were young, but power and the wounds of their oppressors made them angry and heartless. What makes Hocus Pocus 2 so surprising is how it builds on the first but never feels beholden; it pays homage but feels ready to explore the new rather than rehash the old. 

Images courtesy of Disney+

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