‘Hocus Pocus 2’ Review: Bette Midler and Sisters Conjure More of the Same in Decades-Later Disney+ Sequel

Aging may have been the witches’ worst enemy in the 1993 cult classic, but here, it doesn't hinder the film's three stars from tapping their inner divas in this straight-to-streaming reunion.

Hocus Pocus 2
Matt Kennedy

What strange sorcery is this that “Hocus Pocus” — a so-so comedy turned campy cult favorite starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as absolutely fabulous Salem witch sisters — should be getting a sequel nearly three decades after its 1993 release? At the time, Variety speculated that, were it not for the film’s three stars, “‘Hocus Pocus’ wouldn’t seem out of place on the Disney Channel, and perhaps belongs there.” (Its director, Kenny Ortega, would go on to helm the “High School Musical” franchise for the cabler.) In a sense, that’s what’s happened with this follow-up, aimed to breathe some life into the graveyard that is Disney+.

The sequel’s existence owes less to popular demand (the original earned a respectable $39.3 million stateside and went on to become a Halloween season staple) than to the realization that the film had tapped into preteens’ fascination with witchcraft before Harry Potter came along. It can be no coincidence that the new feature lifts so much of its look and feel from that franchise — with eye of newt, a dead man’s head and some aspects of “The Craft” tossed in for good measure. In “Hocus Pocus 2,” the three teens called upon to save Salem from the Sanderson sisters’ return are themselves budding witches, which means the movie isn’t about scaring kids away from magic so much as indulging their post-Potter junior wizarding fantasies.

Young’uns needn’t have seen the earlier movie to make sense of things, although it’s just a click away on Disney+ should any of them be curious enough to watch a classic that predates many of their parents. The original did a pretty good job of wrapping up its story (the sisters were blasted into oblivion when the sun rose on All Saints’ Day), but also suggested that the sisters could be brought back easily enough, should a virgin light a black-flame candle on Halloween — and here, Becca (Whitney Peak) is fooled into doing exactly that by Gilbert (Sam Richardson), the owner of the magic shop now operating in the Sandersons’ old home, where much of the earlier film took place.

Before this simple spell happens, however, director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”) takes us back to early Salem to offer an origin story for the sisters (playing teenage Winifred in the prologue, Taylor Henderson has fun channeling the Divine Miss M’s more flamboyant mannerisms). The Sandersons were “misunderstood” and “ahead of their time,” the movie explains, demonstrating a kind of have-it-both-ways thinking that’s perfectly consistent with the politics of the moment. On one hand, it implies that charges of witchcraft are one tool the patriarchy has for keeping independent women in check; on the other, it allows the women to be bona fide witches (it’s as if they’re being falsely accused of exactly what they are).

In the woods, they meet the Witch Mother (“Ted Lasso” star Hannah Waddingham), who senses their potential and bequeaths the book that enables all their mischief — and which contains a spell that can make them all-powerful at great personal cost. The book has gotten a CG upgrade here, which is too bad, since the animatronic eye embedded in the cover was such a great old-school trick. This hardcover catalog of spells always seemed to have a mind of its own and in Fletcher’s hands, feels less like a prop than a proper character.

Becca and best friend Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) discover that this Halloween, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham) — the classmate with whom they’d been tight throughout childhood — is throwing a house party without inviting them. (Her dad, played by a daffy Tony Hale, is also in the dark.) The movie misses the opportunity to serve up a useful portrayal of the petty divisions that drive old friends apart, while orienting itself to lecture audiences on the importance of loyalty and the perils of egotism. It’s doubtful that such moral lessons are the reason anyone’s watching “Hocus Pocus 2,” which again blends Midler’s hammy diva persona with details that feel almost too dark for a kids’ movie (but have since been normalized by the likes of Neil Gaiman and Tim Burton).

That mix must be what endeared the original to so many back in the day. Frankly, its success has always been tricky to explain — beyond the basic appeal of watching Midler, Parker and Najimy vamp their way through reams of mock-Victorian dialogue, full of words like “thee“ and “doest.” They’re meant to be menacing, but are cartoonishly broad instead: Winifred (Midler) with her puckered lips and beaver-like overbite, Mary (Najimy) wide-eyed and talking out of the side of her mouth, and Sarah (Parker) cursed to be a dumb blonde cliché. Thinking fast, Becca and Izzy talk the women into raiding the beauty products aisle of the local Walgreens, where they mistake lotions for potions and drink the goop, believing it to contain the children’s souls they crave.

It’s hard to be too intimidated by three women who keep erupting into musical numbers, including a cover of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” (with “witch” swapped in for the b-word) that leaves so many questions — like, “Have they been rehearsing this in hell?” and “How long till this spawns a stage musical?” One senses all involved trying to re-create the earlier film’s sense of camp. “Hocus Pocus 2” is actually the better made film, even if it amounts to little more than a stealth remake, with strategic decisions about the present-day and old-Salem witch trios being engineered to allow for more sequels, whether or not its three stars return.

‘Hocus Pocus 2’ Review: Bette Midler and Sisters Conjure More of the Same in Decades-Later Disney+ Sequel

Reviewed on Disney Debut, Sept. 26, 2022. MPA Rating: PG. Running time: 103 MIN.

  • Production: A Disney+ release of a Disney presentation of a Weimaraner Republic Pictures production. Producer: Lynn Harris. Executive producers: Ralph Winter, David Kirschner, Adam Shankman.
  • Crew: Director: Anne Fletcher. Screenplay: Jen D'Angelo; story: David Kirschner, Blake Harris, Jen D'Angelo, based on characters created by David Kirschner, Mick Garris. Camera: Elliot Davis. Editor: Julia Wong. Music: John Debney.
  • With: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Sam Richardson, Doug Jones, Hannah Waddingham, Whitney Peak, Belissa Escobedo, Lilia Buckingham, Froyan Gutierrez, Tony Hale.