The best thing that can probably be said about Hocus Pocus 2 is that it could have been so much worse.
Playing like a big-budget “Disney Channel Original Movie” for the millennial crowd but with a more character-driven narrative, this overdue sequel to the 29-year-old original offers a surprisingly clever and, at times (blushes) heartfelt continuation of the Sanderson Sisters’ bewitching ways. Here, their latest resurrection by way of the Black Flame Candle forces them to cross paths with three teenage girls who have magical ties of their own. Using Hocus Pocus more like a modular foundation than sacrosanct canon, director Anne Fletcher (Netflix’s Dumplin’) and screenwriter Jen D’Angelo find an inventive way of expanding upon the OG movie by reaching into the main characters’ past and softening the trio of witches’ more sinister edges as they once again wreak their unique, PG-brand of havoc on the town of Salem.
Whereas the first Hocus Pocus struggled to maintain narrative momentum thanks to its clunky structure and slightly above Dad Joke-level sense of humor, Hocus Pocus 2 (minus one shoulder shrug of a musical number) uses the franchise’s witchcraft and world-building to earnestly explore timely themes of identity and inclusivity, for a follow-up that fans may begrudgingly concede is better than the original.
To be fair, that isn’t a very challenging bar to clear. Released in the summer of 1993 for some baffling reason, the Halloween-centric, family-friendly Hocus Pocus struggled at the box office, but thrived on home video and eventually became a staple for ’90s kids thanks to countless Disney Channel airings. The filmmakers’ affinity for the first movie is immediately evident, as Hocus Pocus 2 opens with a flashback to a formative 17th-century moment from the sisters’ teenage years. Taylor Henderson, Juju Journey Brener, and Nina Kitchen—playing the younger versions of sisters Winifred, Sarah and Mary, respectively—are so spot-on with their interpretations of the characters that you may be convinced that they de-aged the original actors. Soon, with the help of Ted Lasso’s Hannah Waddingham (in a glorified cameo) as Mother Witch, the young sisters are cursed to a life tied to the Black Flame Candle.
Snap to 29 years later and modern-day Salem has capitalized on the Sanderson Sisters’ mythos with just the right amount of “meta:” The Sandersons’ old home is now a magic shop run by the duplicitous Gilbert (Sam Richardson). During a magic show-slash-exposition-dump at Gilbert’s shop, the plot truly kicks in when he entices local best friends Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) to indulge in some All Hallow’s Eve activities that lead to some Disney-ized trouble. Becca, struggling to come to terms with her own magical power set (one that rivals the strength of all three sisters’ put together), accidentally summons the Sandersons, and only Becca and her pals (including her estranged former bestie, Cassie, played by Lilia Buckingham) can stop them.
But before they do, Hocus Pocus 2 indulges in a delightful “women out of time” detour as the sisters—in the movie’s best and funniest scenes—confront the 21st century by way of a trip to a Walgreens. The movie never quite recaptures the charm of these moments, as it plods through a series of sitcom-y setups and one too many jukebox musical interludes (don’t ask how these sisters know the lyrics to classic oldies). But it makes up for the lull with a few genuinely effective plot twists involving Gilbert, who gets a lively B-storyline that involves the fan-favorite zombie with a removable head (because reasons), Billy Butcherson (the always-good Doug Jones).
Midler, Parker and Najimy effortlessly slip back into their roles, with Midler getting the most screen time and the funniest one-liners. Her performance hovers just below “over the top” for most of the run time, however, but Midler and Fletcher seem to wisely reground it just in time for adult Winifred to deliver the movie’s climactic monologue. It’s a very effective and adult scene that summarizes the movie’s thematic message regarding the importance of sisterhood and family, even among those who can conjure spells and transcend time.
As fun as it is to see these nearly-30-year-old characters get the legacy sequel treatment, the real stars of the movie are its newer characters, especially Becca. Peak, who instantly radiates movie star charm with her performance, elevates the material while also honoring the occasional tonal tightrope her and her costars have to walk. And all walk it in a way that conveys they “understood the assignment” here: Make a Goonies-lite, Amblin-adjacent entertainment that recaptures that Disney Channel Original Movie magic without sullying or degrading “the brand.” For a very passionate fanbase, their efforts have proven very successful.