Now that it’s become synonymous with Halloween nostalgia, it might be hard to remember that Hocus Pocus, in all its campy, corny glory, has bite. The trio of witches who giddily terrorize the town of Salem may not be scary, but they’re ruthless. They literally murder children! The threat of this is made real in the original film’s opening moments, as young Emily Binx is drained of her life while her brother watches on in helpless horror. When the witches return in 1993, they’re just as brazen, knocking the kids around, reviving the corpse of a dead lover, and locking bullies up in a child-sized cage. This is all in the service of family-friendly mayhem, but there’s no remorse in these witches’ hearts.
Sadly, these are not the same characters who appear in Hocus Pocus 2.
Rather than embracing what made the original such a rewatchable romp, Hocus Pocus 2, which premieres September 30 on Disney+, delivers a story that’s — gasp — heartfelt. The Sanderson sisters (played once again by Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, and Sarah Jessica Parker) may threaten a teen or two and bewitch the adult population of Salem with their enchanting songs, but they also seem to care about each other. There’s even an awkward redemption arc that pushes Mildred’s imperious Winifred Sanderson to realize how much she loves her sisters. These are the same sisters she spends most of her time calling “fools”.
In addition to defanging its treacherous trio, the film delivers a nonstop parade of Easter eggs and self-referential jokes for fans of the original. If you thought it was funny when the witches rode mops and vacuum cleaners, then the new film is hoping you’ll love it when they ride Swiffers and Roombas. (It also hopes you’ll politely ignore the blatant product placement.)
This is charming for a while, and indeed, the film is pleasant enough to watch, particularly because the lead actresses are such pros. Ultimately, though, it sacrifices originality in favor of reheated leftovers.
Even the plot is a retread. Once again, three teens summon the Sanderson sisters on Halloween, and once again, their adolescent problems are played out against the backdrop of dark magic. There are welcome themes of inclusion and empowerment, but without anything to balance the earnest sweetness and the inevitable teaching moments, it all feels hollow. If just one character could actually enjoy being bad, then all the goodness might cast a stronger spell.
Hocus Pocus 2 premieres September 30 on Disney+.
Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes. She was previously a reporter/producer at Decider and is a member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @jadebudowski.