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‘Hocus Pocus 2’ review: A worthy followup to a Halloween classic

The Sanderson sisters haven't lost a step in the followup to the 1993 Salem-set classic.

Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson sisters in "Hocus Pocus 2."
Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson sisters in "Hocus Pocus 2." Matt Kennedy/Disney

Upon its release in 1993, Disney’s “Hocus Pocus” was a critical and box office disappointment, with the Salem-set movie only becoming a cult classic once the company began re-airing it on cable every October. So it’s fitting that for “Hocus Pocus 2,” the House of Mouse has skipped the theaters and on Sept. 30 will send it directly to Disney+, the streaming home for programming akin to what viewers might find on the Disney Channel, ABC Family, or Freeform.

Unlike other recent Disney attempts to rehash classic ’90s IP (see: “Home Sweet Home Alone,” “Mulan”), “Hocus Pocus 2” is an entertaining, lively experience that captures the campy fun of the original. While there are plenty of fan service nods to its 1993 predecessor, “Hocus Pocus 2” stands capably on its own, offering a spooky diversion for a whole new generation of viewers.

“Hocus Pocus 2” begins in 1653 Salem, 40 years before the famed Witch Trials. There, a teenaged Winifred Sanderson and her two sisters Mary and Sarah (played by three young actors amusingly aping Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker’s well-known mannerisms) celebrate Winnie’s 16th birthday. The celebration is interrupted by Reverend Traske (Tony Hale, “Veep”), who casts Winnie out of Salem for defying the church’s arranged marriage mandate. Though the segment lasts only 10 minutes, screenwriter Jen D’Angelo scores some early laughs with Winnie’s utter contempt for the patriarchal system she has grown up in.

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In present-day Salem, best friends Becca and Izzy (Whitney Peak, Belissa Escobedo) celebrate Becca’s 16th birthday in the town’s Forbidden Woods, where they are unwittingly tricked into lighting the Black Flame Candle that summons the Sanderson Sisters once more. This time around, Winnie’s objectives are twofold: Enact revenge on the descendant of Reverend Traske (Tony Hale again), who is now Mayor of Salem, and achieve immortality through the use of ancient and complex dark magic.

“Hocus Pocus 2” director Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal”) clearly understands that Midler, Najimy, and Parker are the main attraction, waiting less than 30 minutes to bring the trio back from the dead. Though it’s been nearly 30 years, all three bring the same verve to their performances, gamely swooning and shrieking around the screen, and leaning into the film’s “Three Stooges”-style slapstick with aplomb.

Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson sisters in "Hocus Pocus 2."
Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson sisters in “Hocus Pocus 2.”

“Hocus Pocus 2” then dips into a deep well of fish-out-of-water humor, and almost all of it lands. The Sanderson sisters are enthralled by the endless shelves of youth-giving serums at the local apothecary (Walgreens), and are thrilled by their youthful appearance after a group of teens takes a heavily-filtered selfie with them. And after Winnie — in typically selfish fashion — takes the only broom in Walgreens for herself, Mary forms a bond with a modern substitute. 

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If there is one drawback to the film, it’s that Becca and Izzy’s plot feels a tad underwritten. The star power of the Sanderson sisters looms so large that their teenage concerns about reuniting with estranged BFF turned popular girl Cassie (Lilia Buckingham) feels like an afterthought. Ultimately that’s a minor quibble, as the film merrily zips along on the strength of the Sanderson sisters and supporting performances from Hale, Sam Richardson (“Veep”), and Doug Jones (“The Shape of Water”) once again playing the reanimated corpse of Billy Butcherson. There’s even a musical number, and while it doesn’t quite match 1993’s “I Put A Spell on You,” it’s a joy to see Midler, Najimy, and Parker vamp on stage once again.

Given Disney’s predilection for squeezing every last drop of juice from its intellectual properties, there’s a chance that “Hocus Pocus 2” won’t be the last we see of this bewitching franchise. But if “Hocus Pocus 2” does end up being a swan song for the Sanderson Sisters, it’s a fitting one.

Rating: *** (out of 4)

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How to watch: “Hocus Pocus 2” is streaming on Disney+ September 30.

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