“The witches are back!” So sing the Sanderson sisters to the tune of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” when a couple of teenagers accidentally revive them again in Hocus Pocus 2. The sequel retreads hallowed ground while adding a more modern message about the power of sisterhood. As you would expect, it’s wickedly funny, although it’s far from perfect and often dilutes what made the original film so special.
Halloween just so happens to be Becca’s birthday, an event she and her best friends have always celebrated at a special spot in the Salem woods. Unbeknownst to the three fans of witchcraft, this very spot was the place where the most powerful coven that ever lived, the Sanderson Sisters, received their powers. And the candle they light contains some leftover wax from the legendary Black Flame Candle, bringing the witches back for a second chance to gain eternal life.
The sequel’s prologue introduces Winifred’s 16th birthday in old Salem and the three young actresses (Taylor Henderson, Juju Journey Brener, and Nina Kitchen) are marvelous at recreating the mannerisms established by Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimi as Winifred, Sarah, and Mary. It also establishes “Mother” (Hannah Waddingham), whom they curiously don’t really talk about for the rest of this film. In fact, this character becomes a hanging thread by the end, presumably trying to set up a third film, but it feels like a waste of Waddingham’s talents here.
Hocus Pocus 2 is full of fan-service moments that diehard devotees will relish. It incorporates some concepts that were famously cut from the original, such as a sequence set in a convenience store and a “Candy Cauldron” (it’s not used the way it was intended in the original, but still feels like an on-the-nose nod). Amongst the Salem Scare Fest partygoers are some familiar costumes from the original film, and the sequence yields the film’s second musical number, a Sandersonified version of Blondie’s “One Way Or Another.” Yet the sequel also features a scene where a couple is watching the original film (what?) and incorporates some expositional scenes from the 1993 classic, which feels like an odd choice given that the sisters look different here, not just by the passage of 30 years of time, but also through their upgraded costumes, which are noticeably more elaborate this time around.
In addition to setting up Hannah Waddingham’s character and never giving her a payoff, the prologue also introduces a religious antagonist for the teenage Sanderson Sisters, Reverend Traske (Tony Hale), who looks just like Salem’s current mayor Jeffrey Traske (also Tony Hale). He is presumably a necessary component of the sister’s new quest (to enact the “Magica Maxima” spell that will make them all-powerful without the need to suck the life out of children) but ultimately feels inconsequential after all the setup. The character of Sarah has also been amended to remove any references to sexual thoughts (save for a seductively whispered “Hello, Billy” when reunited with the lovable zombie) and while she’s as dim as ever, there is a moment where she stands up for herself to Winnie. Of the three, her character feels the farthest removed from the original and the loss of her interest in “boys” is odd since the sequel also makes numerous virgin jokes, just like the original (both films carry the same rating, PG).
The sequel’s biggest strength, outside of its musical numbers and campy humor, is its message of sisterhood. The new trio of kids facing off against the Sanderson Sisters (Whitney Peak, Belissa Escobedo, Lilia Buckingham) have a rift in their midst that must be repaired. It provides the story with something to fix in the climax, although it’s nowhere near as emotionally resonant as Thackery Binx’s long-awaited reunion with his sister Emily. It’s part of an overall softening of what made Hocus Pocus feel edgy enough to become a cult classic that ultimately does a disservice to the brand, including having Winnifred learn a lesson and Book’s fleshy details appearing less grotesque.
All criticism aside, I’ve been a huge fan of Hocus Pocus since July 1993 when I saw it in theaters. Hocus Pocus 2 is far better than the literary sequel published in 2018 and while a sequel wasn’t necessary, it offers up something new after three decades of seasonally rewatching the original. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimi are infectiously fun in these roles and the good time they had making the sequel is evident in every scene. For this reason, it’s easy to forgive some of the faults and just enjoy it for what it is. So gather ‘round your TV and enjoy it this Halloween.
I give Hocus Pocus 2 3.5 out of 5 cans of Morton Salt.
Hocus Pocus 2 premieres Friday, September 30th, only on Disney+.