By one of those coincidences that leads me to suspect witchcraft — or perhaps just the more banal dark magic of social media — this week has renewed some heated online chatter about the dubious cultural legacies of two very different movies. One of them is James Cameron’s 3-D wonderment “Avatar” (2009), which recently returned to theaters as a warm-up act for “Avatar: The Way of Water.” That soon-to-arrive sequel will test some of the more persistent putdowns of the first “Avatar,” namely that it was a rare box office juggernaut with a negligible pop-cultural imprint. It was an event movie that everyone saw, the argument goes, but few really loved.
The other movie is the family-friendly supernatural comedy “Hocus Pocus” (1993), which, like “Avatar,” has now spawned a long-awaited follow-up. But unlike “Avatar,” “Hocus Pocus” set no box office records on release, broke no technological ground and received mostly indifferent to hostile reviews. The 10-year-old me who saw it in theaters (and countless times afterward on VHS) would have supplied one of the more enthusiastic notices, won over by its wanly funny-spooky vibes, its now-creaky visual effects and the shrieky rapport of Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson Sisters, a trio of 17th-century New England witches with a taste for young children and archaic second-person-singular pronouns.
Mini-me also would have been delighted by the prospect of a sequel, if disappointed to hear it would take almost 30 years to get off the ground. That lengthy gestation speaks to the long, weird shelf life of the first “Hocus Pocus,” received as a campy misfire but reclaimed, over the decades, as a Halloween staple and (oc)cult classic. It occasioned fan guides, TV specials, theme-park attractions and wildly popular anniversary screenings, some of them attended by ye olde original cast and crew. Parker even launched her own spinoff sitcom, “Hex and the City.” OK, I madest that up.
Despite all this, the charms of “Hocus Pocus” remain elusive for many, its retroactive popularity an ongoing source of bafflement. “Hocus Pocus 2,” arriving this week on Disney+, is unlikely to clear up anyone’s confusion. But neither will it make anyone terribly unhappy. Directed by Anne Fletcher (“The Proposal,” “27 Dresses”) from a script by Jen D’Angelo, the movie is a thin but painless retread, cloaking its derivative storytelling in a familiar cloak of fan gratification. It kicks off in 17th-century Salem, Mass., where a defiantly impious young Winifred Sanderson (a very good Taylor Henderson) flees into the forest with her sisters, Mary (Nina Kitchen) and Sarah (Juju Journey Brener). There, they meet an older witch (“Ted Lasso’s” Hannah Waddingham) who bequeaths them a magic spellbook that will unlock their dark powers.
Flash forward to the present day, which happens to be exactly 29 years after the events of the first “Hocus Pocus,” when a virginal high schooler ill-advisedly resurrected the Sanderson Sisters for one Halloween night of literally soul-sucking mayhem. That’s what happens again in “Hocus Pocus 2,” this time by way of a rather smarter teenager, Becca (Whitney Peak), and a very dumb Salem historian, Gilbert (Sam Richardson), plus some tortuous story logic that brings the evil sisters whooshing back to life. As the lip-smacking, incantation-hurling Winifred, Midler gorges herself anew on the scenery and sometimes blasts it with lightning bolts. Najimy and Parker are also back as dopey Mary and ditzy Sarah, respectively, who live to sniff out children and lure them to a tasty death.
The Sandersons’ shtick — part sub-Three Stooges slapstick, part “Saturday Night Live” parody of “The Crucible” — is no more clever or inspired than it was in the first movie, but Midler, Najimy and Parker remain such game performers, so adept at vampy antics and menacing facial contortions, that thou wilt not really care. They’re particularly funny in one sequence in which Becca and her friend, Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), try to distract the witches from their pedicidal rampage by taking them shopping at Walgreens, where they’re duly wowed by the advanced sorcery of beauty products and automatic sliding doors.
Apart from some complications involving the town’s geekily Halloween-obsessed mayor (Tony Hale), that’s about it for narrative novelty. “Hocus Pocus” die-hards won’t be surprised by the reappearance of Winifred’s undead paramour, Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones, lean, green and un-mean as he was in the first movie). And after their 1993 rendition of “I Put a Spell on You,” of course the witches are obliged to revive their Vegas-style lounge act here, this time while crashing (what else?) a Sanderson Sisters-themed costume contest — a self-congratulatory wink at how popular the “Hocus Pocus” phenomenon has become.
It has also become, at least in this passably entertaining sequel, a softer, more sentimental thing than in its earlier incarnation. Rather than sucking the souls of Salem’s children, the witches decide to shore up their power with the mother of all spells, initiating an “Into the Woods”-style quest for ingredients. No one bursts into Sondheim here (a Blondie classic is the soundtrack highlight), but it all builds to an appreciably moving, even Sondheimian warning to be careful what thou wishest for. That poignancy sets it apart from the first movie, as does the fact that nobody turns into a cat this time around. For that, we’ll always have “Avatar.”
‘HOCUS POCUS 2’
MPAA rating: PG, for action, macabre/suggestive humor and some language
Running time: 1:43
How to watch: Disney+
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