With Bette Midler and her onscreen sisters shamelessly hamming things up, it looks as if those involved in making this inoffensive flight of fantasy had more fun than anyone over 12 will have watching it. Still, the blend of witchcraft and comedy should divert kids without driving the patience of their parents to the boiling point, leaving a chance to conjure up a little box office magic among that contingent before the pot tips over. Actually, without a heavily madeup Midler at its center (and perhaps the hot-off-“Honeymoon in Vegas” Sarah Jessica Parker) “Hocus Pocus” wouldn’t seem out of place on the Disney Channel and perhaps belongs there. As is, even with souped-up special effects, the premise feels a bit wispy to sustain a feature, and the action sags at times as a result.
That tried-and-true storyline has a teenage boy (Omri Katz) feeling out of place having moved to a new town — in this case venerable Salem, Mass. — with his parents and kid sister. Stuck with taking moppet Dani (Thora Birch, one of the pic’s major assets) trick-or-treating on Halloween night, he meets up with his dream-girl classmate (Vinessa Shaw) and ends up traveling to a musty old museum where, inadvertently, he conjures up three children-hungry witches from the dead.
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They are, in fact, the Sanderson sisters: the cruel Winifred (Midler), the daft Mary (Kathy Najimy of “Sister Act”) and the positively dense, boy-crazy Sarah (Parker).
According to Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert’s script, from a story by Garris and producer David Kirschner, the trio must suck the lifeforce out of children by dawn or risk being scattered forever.
“Hocus Pocus” suffers from inconsistency, careening around somewhat aimlessly between the coven being menacing to the kids or a comedic sort of Three Stooges on broomsticks.
Choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega, whose own last flight was on the ill-fated Disney musical “Newsies,” can’t quite pull off this tap dance either, even with the ripe comedic possibilities from the fact that on Halloween night no one takes these real-life witches seriously.
There are a few inspired moments from the witches, but for the most part the movie belongs to the kids, with Katz appropriately earnest as Max, Birch cute and wisecracking as the sister and Shaw spunky and well-cast as the quintessential dream girl.
Tech credits are modest yet solid, with creditable visuals from Buena Vista Visual Effects, some nifty costuming and a sharp look from cinematographer Hiro Narita.
Unfortunately, like the zombie revived by Winifred, the film keeps losing its head, particularly during the final sequence, when it’s hard to ascertain exactly what the heroes are hoping to accomplish. For all its “E.T.”-type flourishes — from John Debney’s score to one particular line of dialogue at the end — these broomsticks won’t give anyone that sort of lift.