Hocus Pocus 2 review: the witches are back

Kathy Najimy, Bette Midler, and Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus 2
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Coming almost 30 years after the original film, Hocus Pocus 2 is a wonderfully fun homage to its predecessor.

Much has changed in Salem since Halloween 1993, but the Sanderson sisters sure as hell haven’t. Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker return to the roles of the three evil witches as though it was only yesterday that they were last in the costumes. The trio get everything right when it comes to their performances, from the mannerisms to the way the characters speak, and the writing of them is spot-on too. Even among the introduction of interesting new characters and storylines, Hocus Pocus 2 keeps Winifred, Mary and Sarah Sanderson firmly at the heart of the film, and evokes the original as much as it possibly can.

The result is a wickedly fun time that’ll have fans of the 1993 movie grinning from start to finish.

Halloween 2022 happens to be Becca’s (Whitney Peak) 16th birthday – the day a witch is rumoured to receive her powers. Joined by her friends Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) and Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), her birthday celebrations accidentally bring the legendary Sanderson sisters back from the dead (again). As you can imagine, chaos ensues as the witches wreak havoc on Salem, determined this time to survive past sunrise.

While all eyes are on Midler, Najimy and Parker for the majority of the movie, the new additions to the cast are also extremely likeable. It feels fitting that this time the protagonists are a trio of young women who parallel the Sandersons, and they’re written as largely likeable and believable characters – petty teenage squabbles and all. They’re joined by equally charismatic actors – Sam Richardson in particular shines as magic shop owner Gilbert, and Tony Hale plays the so-likeable-he’s-almost-annoying mayor. Other roles are more like cameos – Doug Jones returns as Billy Butcherson, but we regrettably don’t see too much of him. Hannah Waddingham, too, has only a small role that doesn’t allow her to do much.

There’s a simple reason for that, though. The film clearly knows what its strengths are, and it’s the three leading characters and the ways it parallels the original. Hocus Pocus 2 hits many of the same story beats as its predecessor, but updates them for the present day. There’s always a danger with that that it’ll feel like a soulless retread of what came before, but instead it feels like a loving homage. You get the impression watching this that director Anne Fletcher and writer Jen D’Angelo have a lot of affection for the original, and it’s evident throughout their movie.

Belissa Escobedo and Whitney Peak in Hocus Pocus 2

Their story begins hundreds of years ago in Salem, but instead of chronicling the witches’ demise it shows us the origins of their powers. There are upsides and downsides to this prologue, and it’s one of the few ways in which this sequel stumbles. It attempts to give Bette Midler’s Winifred a sympathetic backstory by showing how she was treated as a child. Given how unerringly evil the character is this seems like a questionable choice in itself, but it’s also not wholly committed to. This is one of the only scenes in which Winifred is sympathetic, and there’s little effort elsewhere in the film to maintain that depiction of her. Which is for the best, really, as Midler is at her peak when she’s cackling and conniving and utterly over the top.

What is impressive though is the effort the casting team went to for just a few scenes. The young actors are the spitting image of their adult counterparts, and Taylor Henderson as young Winifred expertly mimics Midler. Even the young Billy Butcherson, who is only glimpsed for a second, is basically a Doug Jones doppelganger. When it comes to getting casting, production design, and the references to Hocus Pocus, it’s impossible to fault the film’s attention to detail.

It’s also nice to see that Salem’s passion for Halloween remains the same as it was in ’93. The town is incredibly atmospheric, full of residents who relish in dressing up for the occasion, giving the movie the same autumnal, Halloween-ey spirit that made the first film so much fun. There are also a couple of new musical numbers that, while incapable of living up to Midler’s performance of I Put A Spell On You, are still campy, fun and brimming with enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm is one of the best things about the film. It’s consistently high-energy and full of lighthearted fun, and every single cast member brings that to their character. Hocus Pocus 2 recreates everything that made the original so great – the leading trio, the over-the-top performances and the Halloween witchery – and tweaks it just enough to keep the formula feeling fresh.

This is a smart legacy sequel that has a lot of love for its predecessor, and knows what the audience loves about it too. Hocus Pocus 2 shows Midler, Najimy and Parker at their best, and is a gloriously fun film that feels like an affectionate homage to the original that also stands up on its own.

Hocus Pocus 2 will premiere on 30th September exclusively on Disney+.

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