Hocus Pocus 2 review: Something nostalgic this way comes
The uneven Disney Plus sequel is most successful when it leans into the Halloween hokum and pays tribute to the original.
Despite poor initial reviews and ticket sales, Disney’s Hocus Pocus went on to fill a cult-ish gap in the market for high-camp comedy in Halloween fancy-dress. While the plot and tone showed all the focus of a lurching, headless zombie, stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy embraced the silliness gamely as Salem witches the Sanderson sisters.
Almost 30 years on, the similarly muddled sequel works best when it emphasises the sorceresses’ sister act, emerging as a knowing tribute in sequel disguise.
Recognising the Sandersons’ importance to the title’s appeal, Jen D’Angelo’s script opens with a 1653-set origins vignette. The young Winifred (Midler), Sarah (Parker) and Mary (Najimy) were just girls who wanted to have fun after all, especially if goats’ blood-flavoured jelly (“Look, it jiggleth!”) was involved, until the pious Reverend Traske (Tony Hale) banished them from Salem.
Meanwhile, in 2022, teenagers Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) inadvertently reawaken the 17th century sisters when Halloween shop-owner (and secret Sanderson fan-boy) Gilbert (Sam Richardson) sells the duo a black-flame candle he claims is fake.
Lit in the woods, the magical candle resurrects the Sandersons, who instantly break into song before haplessly attempting to wreak revenge on Salem.
As the Sandersons seek children to boil in pursuit of eternal youth, the set-up saddles director Anne Fletcher with tonal problems. Are the witches villains, or just misunderstood mischief-makers? But the disregard for consistency is flagrant enough to seem self-aware, and Fletcher duly milks her hoary horror ingredients for arch comic returns.
Modernising touches emerge, ranging from high-school tensions to gags about the Halloween and beauty industries. While D’Angelo also plays with ideas about the patriarchal fear of girls growing up, these subtexts are soon sacrificed to the spectacle of Midler, Parker and Najimy goofing it up like overgrown kids.
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Between a makeover of Sir Elton John’s The Bitch Is Back and a showstopping cover of Blondie, the gratuitous musical set-pieces typify the relish for excess here, which extends to cameos from drag queens in Sanderson garb.
Delivering to exuberant order, Midler cackles, Parker plays the ditz and Najimy – in a decent running gag - upgrades the vacuum cleaner she used as a broomstick last time around.
Of the other stars, Hale is a comic standout as Traske and his child-like descendant Jefry, though Lilia Buckingham is saddled with an under-written role as the latter’s teenage daughter Cassie.
Here and elsewhere, Hocus Pocus 2 isn’t immune to the original film’s sloppiness. The fall-out between Cassie and former friends Becca and Izzy is too under-developed to spark any interest, while will-this-do plotting rankles when the teens leave the Sandersons unguarded in a rudimentary trap. And after the prologue’s sympathy for the witches, a scene where they are later subjected to something like stoning sits oddly.
On the film’s own daffy terms, Fletcher is more successful when she leans into the Halloween hokum and nostalgia bait. She makes the most of the moonlit woods sequences, branches cracking like The Blair Witch Project for kids, while the Sandersons and creature actor Doug Jones’ zombie Billy bank a solid haul of jokes.
A gag involving Winifred’s response to a smart home hub is a nice out-of-time touch, before a fond twist frames the film as a love letter to women misbehaving.
Even if the mix of patchwork plotting and patchy characters struggles to earn the set-up for another film, Midler, Parker and Najimy don’t waste a chance to rise to their comeback occasion. “I bet you’re looking for the stage?” someone asks them. With a conspiratorial twinkle, Midler has the right answer: “Always.”
Hocus Pocus 2 comes to Disney Plus on Friday 30th September 2022. You can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 a year now.
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