The original Hocus Pocus was a modest 1993 hit for Disney, one that demonstrated much stronger legs on cable television than in theatres. Its Halloween setting, combined with a canny blend of family comedy and child-appropriate horror, made it something of an annual ritual in the USA and probably the closest thing Disney has to a cult favourite.
That regular presence of the film on Disney’s schedule – and now on demand via Disney+ – means that over the past 29 years it has simply never really gone away or been forgotten. That said it still seems mildly surprising to see Disney+ premiere a sequel. It boasts a new director and some original characters, but still – and miraculously – reunites original stars Bette Midler, Kathy Nagimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker for a second round of villainy as the much-feared Sanderson sisters.
It is the constant presence of popular old films and television series on home video and streaming services that has enabled this kind of ‘legacy’ sequel to exist. Those annual screenings have enabled the original Hocus Pocus to continue building a fresh and appreciative audience while retaining an increasingly nostalgic adult fan base at the same time. On the one hand, it’s this kind of pre-existing market that makes something like Hocus Pocus 2 commercially viable. On the other, it risks setting the sequel up for failure. It does need to meet the expectations set by the original film, but the expectations compounded by nearly 30 years of rose-tinted nostalgia.
Whether or not Hocus Pocus 2 is going to work for the individual, then, depends as much on the viewer’s attitude as it does the film’s own merits. It is, after all, still just a sequel. Derivative works rarely match or exceed the quality of the original, because by design they lack the originality and freshness of ideas. To admit that the second film does not quite hit the enjoyable heights of the first is not really a criticism, so much as a statement of inevitable truth. To then disregard Hocus Pocus 2 or – as many early reviews seem to suggest – condemn it entirely, is not only unnecessary but unfair. The film does exactly what it claims to do: provide its audience with an enjoyable return of the Sanderson sisters in a new adventure.
For this nostalgic Disney fan, it certainly succeeds. There is no escaping the fact that its three stars are all 29 years older than they were, and yet their performances and interactions perfectly recapture their old chemistry and fun. It feels like all three are having a world of fun, and that feeling is rather infectious.
This new film has a stronger comedic focus than before, and in turn the light horror elements are perhaps a little muted. That, along with the Disney+ release, gives it a slightly old-fashioned Disney Channel feel. It is one of the main aspects that prevent the sequel from quite living up to its potential. There is much fun to be had, and characters to revisit, but I cannot see anyone rewatching Hocus Pocus 2 with anything near the frequency of Hocus Pocus. Director Anne Fletcher (27 Dresses) has made a satisfying follow-up, but has not stretched herself much further than that.
It is refreshing to see the three juvenile leads of the original replaced here by a trio of witchcraft-obsessed teenagers. On the one level it is nice to see the film not slavishly duplicate the narrative of the original film. On the other it seems a pretty clear sign of changing attitudes to children’s entertainment: still shadowed by the success of Home Alone (1990), Hocus Pocus could afford to foreground children. These days an ethnically diverse cast of adolescents seems a lot more in favour. They are a funny, engaging bunch as well. Lilia Buckingham gets sidelined a little for plot purposes, but Whitney Beak and Belissa Escobedo form an enjoyable double act throughout the movie. Perhaps it’s the Disney Channel feel of the thing, but if audience respond to Hocus Pocus 2 I can easily imagine a spin-off series on the horizon.