Hocus Pocus 2 review: Bette Midler can’t recreate the magic in this belated, bewildering sequel

Dir: Anne Fletcher. Starring: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Whitney Peak, Sam Richardson, Doug Jones, Belissa Escobedo, Lilia Buckingham, Tony Hale, Hannah Waddingham. Cert PG, 104 minutes

Hocus Pocus has had quite an afterlife. It’s been 29 years since a virgin first lit the black flame candle, resurrecting a trio of Salem witches and igniting the breathless disdain of film critics. An overboiling cauldron of garish performances, baroque plotting, and immortal cats, the 1993 Disney comedy was called “an unholy mess” by The New York Times, while the venerable critic Roger Ebert said the film was “desperately in need of self-discipline”. But this October the Disney-run US channel Freeform will air Hocus Pocus 13 times across 31 days. One studio’s mess is a wholly owned subsidiary’s black magic.

It’s on the back of these cultishly popular reruns that Disney has awarded the Sanderson Sisters a sequel, to be released exclusively on Disney+ just in time for All Hallows’ Eve. Directed by Anne Fletcher (The Proposal), Hocus Pocus 2 sees Bette Midler return as Winifred, the zany, imperious elder sister with a wonky overbite, along with Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah, the ditzy flirt, and Kathy Najimy as Mary, the daffy third sister who’s always making do with what’s left over. Spellbinding, though, this sequel is not.

Millennials – plus the marketing masterminds behind the invention of Freeform’s “31 Nights of Halloween” extravaganza – are responsible for transforming the original Hocus Pocus into a kitschy favourite, but the sequel is still aimed at kids. The Sanderson Sisters are accidentally beckoned into the year 2022 by a teenager named Becca (Whitney Peak), who dabbles in the rituals of magic without necessarily thinking it’s real.

From there, the movie takes the form of a scavenger hunt through small-town Salem, Massachusetts, which looks more artificially twee than it did back in 1993. The child-eating witches need ingredients – the head of a lover, a rare berry, etc – for a spell to transform their one-night reprieve from the dead into immortality. Becca, who should be celebrating her 16th birthday, bands together with her best friends to stop them. They hit the high school. The cemetery. The town square. In a sequence that smacks of old-school product placement, everyone spends a shocking amount of the film in Walgreens. (“Those were a hoax,” the witches bellow when a cream called BabyFace doesn’t restore them to youth.)

For nostalgia viewers, the most satisfying few minutes might be Hocus Pocus 2’s cold open, which serves as an origin story for how the Sanderson girls got their mystical powers. As children, the sisters are played by a trio of young actors – Taylor Henderson (Winifred), Nina Kitchen (Mary), Juju Journey Brener (Sarah) – whose mimicry of their older counterparts’ mannerisms is so hilariously precise that I suspect they’ve watched the original film as many times as I have. But the central trio of Midler, Parker, and Najimy fail to recapture the gleeful chaos of the first outing. Parker’s less embarrassingly coquettish; Najimy’s less drippingly inane. Never is OG Hocus Pocus director Kenny Ortega’s absence more felt than in the film’s big musical number, which doesn’t hold a (black flame) candle to Midler’s vampy rendition of “I Put a Spell On You” from last time around.

Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) and Becca (Whitney Peak) in ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ (Matt Kennedy)
Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) and Becca (Whitney Peak) in ‘Hocus Pocus 2’ (Matt Kennedy)

There are new delights, to be sure. Hannah Waddingham (Ted Lasso) appears too briefly as a seasoned witch who notices Winifred has the right temperament for sorcery, which is to say the wrong temperament for a girl in 1700s Salem. Becca, too, is played with charming pluck by reboot veteran Peak, last seen on Gossip Girl 2.0. A pair of Roomba robot vacuums are put to amusing narrative use. Tony Hale (Buster in Arrested Development), on the other hand, plays his Salem mayor like a man who knows he’s the comic relief in a hammy kid’s movie.

Hocus Pocus 2 doesn’t hit the extremes that made the original a critical flop, but such an enduring rewatch. It’s less menacing. It lacks the exquisite cuteness exuded by a middle-grade Thora Birch. There are zero talking cats. But that’s unlikely to matter much to most audiences. By reuniting the Sanderson Sisters, Disney is giving its loyal millennial viewership an evening of nostalgia that gen alpha will probably still be tuning into 29 years from now, when Halloween won’t just be a month-long programming block but an entire season.