Don’t Question the Magic of Hocus Pocus

The more Bette Midler runs amok, the better.

Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the three witch sisters of "Hocus Pocus 2"

Hocus Pocus, as a film, makes little sense. The plot, about a coven of witches who seek to eat children, involves a talking cat, a boy who despises trick-or-treating, and far too many mentions of virgins lighting candles. Released inexplicably in the middle of summer 1993, it was a box-office failure that put off critics.

But Hocus Pocus, as a cultural phenomenon, makes perfect sense. The costumes are easily replicable, the one-liners fantastically quotable. The movie is campy, with a catchy musical number and exaggerated performances. Given its Halloween setting, Hocus Pocus has become as ubiquitous come autumn as pumpkin-spice lattes. The biggest fans watch it every October, when it airs almost daily on TV.

So of course Disney made a sequel. Hocus Pocus 2, which started streaming on Disney+ yesterday, revives the reviled Sanderson sisters—Winifred, Mary, and Sarah (played respectively by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker)—nearly 30 years after the original. Like the trio of eccentric spell-casting divas at its center, this follow-up is bizarre, flashy, and chaotic. And yet, it’s also satisfying to take in.

I’m not a die-hard Hocus Pocus fan—it’s never been an annual viewing event for me, more of a catch-it-on-in-the-background kind of thing—but I nevertheless found myself charmed by the new entry. The film wears its ridiculousness so proudly, it’s impossible to disdain. It is both a diverting watch and a sly commentary on its predecessor’s strengths. Hocus Pocus 2 understands that Hocus Pocus has a lot that doesn’t work, including an overstuffed plot, hokey dialogue, and chintzy effects. But what the original did have was a uniquely cartoonish raucousness, the kind of unpretentious silliness that can turn a mediocre movie into a cult favorite.

Sam Richardson offering a knowing look in "Hocus Pocus 2"

Hocus Pocus 2 grasps, in other words, that the first film isn’t exactly sacred storytelling—and so, as a sequel, it has more than a little fun with the material. It strips the plot to its bare bones, largely ignoring the events that came before in favor of sequences that allow the actors to chew as much scenery as possible. A flashback to the Sandersons’ childhood years in the 1600s, for example, features Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham as a fabulously hammy witch who grants them their sentient spell book, along with a wiggy Tony Hale as an arachnophobic reverend. The teenagers involved this time around play a part in the magic, instead of just gawking at the sisters. And the script pokes fun at its own ludicrousness. “Who are they performing for?” one character asks early on when Winifred, Mary, and Sarah arrive and immediately burst into song.

Speaking of the pesky threesome, none of this works without the witches themselves getting to run amok even more than they did in the original. Midler, Najimy, and Parker reprise their roles with an enthusiasm that radiates off the screen; all of them are absurdly overqualified for their parts but appear to be having the most fun they’ve ever had. Midler in particular seems to delight in every over-the-top antic, including one in which Winifred tries to navigate her way past a set of automatic doors. Instead of walking through them as they open, Midler twirls slowly, looking terrified with every degree spun. That character beat left me in stitches.

It also reminded me of what I enjoyed most about Hocus Pocus as a kid, even when I caught scenes in snippets: the leads’ commitment to making the Sanderson sisters not just odd, but naively so. Take one of my favorite moments from the 1993 film, for instance: After the witches have been tricked into thinking that the water coming from a sprinkler system is “the burning rain of death,” Winifred tests the liquid by holding out her palm and then licking it. Mary, seeing this, immediately licks her own palm too. These moves are objectively gross, yet sweetly endearing at the same time. The sisters are outcasts bewildered by everything going on around them, and that confusion makes them dependent on and devoted to one another. Not much about Hocus Pocus is realistic, except the trio’s anxiety about stepping into a world they don’t know how to navigate. Despite how much they want to eat children, they exude a defiance and obstinacy that can resonate with young audiences also caught in the turmoil of having to grow up.

Hocus Pocus 2 offers the same concoction of heartfelt weirdness. The Sandersons are more determined than ever to succeed now that they’ve been resurrected a second time, but they are even more perplexed by the world they’ve entered. The film follows their lead, playing up their closeness amid the corny jokes and kooky hijinks, rekindling the same spark that turned Hocus Pocus into a hit. So many of Disney’s recent remakes and reboots that mine the company’s back catalog have cared more about exploiting nostalgia through endless references than capturing the allure of the original work. But Hocus Pocus 2 is neither a soulless shot-for-shot re-creation nor an overwrought brand update. It highlights the chemistry that kept viewers spellbound enough to return to the first film time and time again, while dialing up the childlike fun. That’s a kind of magic not every sequel can conjure.