In this era of reboots and revivals, it’s generally a good idea to keep your expectations pretty low. Given the choice between risking a $150 million budget on some new and unproven idea or pinning their hopes on one more go-round with an established property, Hollywood seems determined to keep taking the perceived safe route every time. We get another Batman reboot here and a Willy Wonka prequel there, Clerks 3 and Shrek 5 and Mission Impossible 8. Sometimes it works (the MCU is the gold standard everyone is trying to recreate), but more often than not these unimaginative efforts do more harm than good, draining the fun from the originals and ripping away the nostalgia filter to expose their flaws. So, if you met the news of a Hocus Pocus sequel 29 years after the original with equal parts anticipation and dread, no one would blame you.
Let me put your mind at ease. Hocus Pocus 2 isn’t going to ruin your childhood any more than it’s going to earn Bette Midler that elusive Oscar to complete her EGOT set. It’s cute, snappy fun that leaves you feeling like you enjoyed yourself even though you’ll struggle to remember the plot by bedtime. There’s a few great jokes and a bunch of good ones, fantastic performances from Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker and, of course, a snappy musical number that makes zero narrative sense but will get your toes tapping all the same.
Like the first film, Hocus Pocus 2 opens in Salem, Mass., in the 1600s, but this time with the villainous Sanderson sisters as children. The three girls flee the town and a mob of angry villagers and learn the ways of witchcraft from a mysterious stranger (a disappointingly brief appearance by Hannah Waddingham). Fast-forward 350 years or so to modern-day Salem, where best friends and wannabe witches Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) are struggling to plan Becca’s traditional birthday ritual without their friend Cassie (Lilia Buckingham). The friends stop by the old Sanderson house (now a witch-themed souvenir store) to see their friend Gilbert (Sam Richardson of Veep) and get the audience through some quick exposition about how the Sandersons were hanged in 1693 only to be resurrected for a night in 1993 before being banished back to the afterlife. One thing leads to another, and it turns out that this year, Becca’s 16th birthday, their annual ritual has some unexpected effects: The Sanderson sisters — Winnie (Midler) and her sidekicks, Mary (Najimy) and Sarah (Parker), are back.
Winnie decides that the sisters must cast a secret and dangerous spell that will let them live forever, and hijinks ensue as they recruit Gilbert to the task of gathering some ingredients, including the head of Winnie’s first love, Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones reprising his role as a stumbling zombie). Meanwhile, the sisters go in search of the blood of an enemy — Cassie’s dad (Tony Hale), the mayor and a direct descendant of the reverend who cast them out of Salem in the opening sequence. I won’t spoil what plot there is, but suffice to say their search leads to plenty of opportunities for slapstick comedy and hilarious anachronistic misunderstandings.
Director Anne Fletcher has a unique challenge here. In any children’s movie, the director has to strike a balance between keeping things tolerable for the parents while moving the story along in a way that keeps the kids engaged. That’s hard enough, but in this case, Fletcher is dealing with a whole other factor: With a 29-year gap between the first movie and the sequel, those parents she’s trying to keep entertained are also the people who saw the original movie as children. Perhaps even more importantly, there’s a decent chance a lot of the current kids who make up the main target audience haven’t even seen the original or at least don’t have the same kind of connection to it that their parents do. This can’t just be a remix of the original, as that would miss the kids entirely. At the same time, they didn’t bring back Midler and company 30 years later because the fourth graders loved her in Beaches.
Fletcher understands the assignment, and she nails it. There are plenty of callbacks to the first film here but not so many that half the movie goes over the kids’ heads. The balance is right on, largely because Fletcher seems to understand which parts of the original worked in a way that reuses the same good stuff without just redoing the same gags. The story feels new and different (though admittedly uninspired) while the characters are fun and familiar.
Ultimately, it’s those characters that really help this film land on the “pretty good” side of the rehash spectrum. Part of the haze of nostalgia that makes something like this work is the fact that most of us don’t remember that the original Hocus Pocus was a ho-hum movie at best that was elevated to classic status solely on the hammy exuberance of Midler, Najimy and Parker. When I say Fletcher understood her job, a big part of that is simply letting those three do their thing. Parker’s comic timing and all-in performance as the ditzy youngest sister is perfect, and Najimy brings the same wild goofiness that made her the sneaky scene stealer in the first film. As for Midler, 29 years ago could have been last week. She’s charming and funny, the center of attention in every scene but also giving her co-stars plenty of space with which to play.
Really, it comes down to this: Hocus Pocus 2 isn’t a reboot or a retread. It’s a revisit, another chance to spend some time with the characters we loved before. It would be easy to knock it for the plot holes or the abrupt resolution but only if you’ve forgotten that the first one was full of the same flaws. What matters is that Fletcher and her cast give us more of what worked originally, not the same pieces done over again. The original audience grew up in the past three decades, but the movie didn’t. It wasn’t supposed to. It’s just for another generation of kids this time, and it’s better that way.