Like a lot of other kids born in the 1980s, I was fed an entertainment diet consisting largely of Disney movies until I was about 12—animated, live-action, made-for-TV, whatever. Not only did I watch Disney films; apparently, I had an absurd sort of brand loyalty to them. If the movie didn’t start with Cinderella’s castle, shimmering silver over the dark blue background, then it was not going to be a good movie, no matter what anyone said. Starting up Hocus Pocus and seeing that blue screen once again, I was surprised to recall how real Disney magic was for me as a kid, and to realize that Disney magic ages quite well.
There’s plenty wrong with Hocus Pocus, a 1993 live-action Disney film; it was panned by critics but later became a cult favorite among Millennials. I can personally attest to the fact that when a clip from Hocus Pocus came on during movie-trivia night at a Brooklyn bar, the crowd of twenty- and thirtysomethings erupted into cheers. At first glance, this movie seems to be just another in a long line of live-action efforts churned out by Disney. The company had an easy platform for its studio productions—either risk a theatrical release or pipe it to the in-house premium television channel—and these kids’ movies often seem lackluster, with their hokey special effects and terrible dialogue.
Yet they’re also carefully crafted to be relevant and entertaining for the intended audience. Hocus Pocus is no exception in that it has a standard kid-movie plot: Main character Max (Omri Katz) has just moved from California to Massachusetts, and he’s predictably unhappy with the transition. His family doesn’t listen to him, and his kid sister doesn’t understand him. On the upside, though, there’s a pretty girl in his history class. This teen-romance plot could be lifted out of this movie and put into a dozen others—neither Max nor his crush Allison have much substance as characters, and their romance exists primarily to move the story forward. More interesting is Max’s younger sister Dani (played by a witty Thora Birch) who has more vim than anything the older kids can muster—a spunkiness that not only gives some of the funniest lines in the movie, but also the better storyline.
But that’s fine because the plot is just the binding agent for the real attractions of the film—an animatronic talking black cat, a charming zombie ex-boyfriend, and a trio of singing witches who are blatantly copping the aesthetic and comedic patter of drag queens.
Aside from the supernatural elements and extended gags, Hocus Pocus has a distinct structure. The first scene is an economical flashback to the witches’ lives in the 1600s; in the space of 10 minutes, we learn Binx the cat’s backstory, the motivations and practices of the witches, and how they might be raised from the dead. Also, all the emotional beats fall in the right places. It’s a Disney film, which means the movie is scored with a heavy hand, but the story is paced well enough that the music isn’t required to feel emotionally primed for the next step of the narrative. It’s very important that Binx dies twice. The first time, he pops back to life, but the second time, it hurts. (Though his human-form ghost walks away to heaven, which is some consolation.)
This kind of attention to structure is crucial for kids’ movies; limited attention spans and slower comprehension make it harder to get fancy. At the same time, this focus on narrative and editing would improve a lot movies made exclusively for grown-ups. Hocus Pocus is one those films where it’s hard for the viewer to remember how much screen time has passed; the film is whizzing by, keeping its audience engaged.
And I haven’t even gotten to Bette Midler yet.
It’s a joke of sorts that in many kids’ movies, the villain is more compelling than the protagonist. Darth Vader is far more impressive than Luke Skywalker, and Maleficent has a lot more charisma than Princess Aurora. We like villains, even if we want to see them burn. But Disney didn’t often get the chance to make one of its live-action villains larger than life, like the classic animated ones. Many of the live-action films don’t even have villains, outside of the bully or mean coach who eventually sees the error of their ways.
Hocus Pocus is one of the few instances where Disney’s talent at making villains funny, relatable, and scary makes the leap to live-action. Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson is a horror-show drag queen—all eye makeup and hairspray, complete with long fingernails and a tattered thrift-store dress. Her backup singers of doom are Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker, typecast in hanger-on roles. Winifred makes the jokes, but sisters Mary and Sarah are usually the butt of them. Mary is chubby and a little slow. Sarah is unabashedly slutty and even slower. (Neither of them is doing very much for feminism.) Together, they form an imposing, crackling trio that could fill all the screen time available if it was offered.
Being a witch in a non-animated Disney film requires saying and doing a lot of really stupid things. This includes sniffing out children to dose with a potion and then eat, trapping stoner-bullies in birdcages, speaking in “thee”s and “thou”s to everyone from bus drivers to talking cats, and flying on a vacuum cleaner in lieu of a broomstick. Midler, Najimy, and Parker dive in with zeal, managing to make the dumbest moments in the movie even more ridiculous. In spite of her acting-legend status, there is nothing especially noteworthy in Midler’s performance. But the sheer abandon with which she hams it up, playing off of Najimy and Parker, makes her the heart and soul of a film that could otherwise be forgettable. She takes the silliness of it all quite seriously.
Despite its subject matter, Hocus Pocus isn’t a horror movie, or even a kids’ horror movie. It’s a comedy, veering from slapstick to tongue-in-cheek horror-movie references to groan-worthy puns and other wordplay. It is purposefully silly, eschewing romance or beauty for something that is splashy and fun. In a sense, it anticipates the adoration we have for things that are so awful they go around the bend to become good again (See: Manos: The Hands Of Fate or The Rocky Horror Picture Show). There’s a kind of studied effort that has to go into creating something this memorably campy. Which is just a fancy way of saying that all of these films are so determinedly ridiculous they are in on the joke. In Hocus Pocus, the witches make friends with a couple they believe to be the devil and his wife—played by director-siblings Garry and Penny Marshall. Their obsequious obsession with “the Master” is a broad wink to the audience in a film full of them.
No scene more perfectly encapsulates Hocus Pocus than the legendary “I Put A Spell On You” number that sits squarely in act two. This is when it becomes clear the film is operating on two levels: the kids’ storyline, in which they are trying to get the adults to care about their problems and pay attention to the imminent peril, and the adult storyline, in which these three performers arrive to put on a ridiculous show. For the purposes of the plot, we’re supposed to care about the former. But the spectacle of the witches is so captivating that we can’t help but enjoy the evil that’s unfolding. It reveals the double nature of Hocus Pocus, which is essentially a drag show masquerading as a kids’ movie.
In that show-stopping scene, Max takes the microphone to warn the town of danger, but Midler coyly steps into the spotlight, saying, “Why, thank you, Max, for that marvelous introduction,” with a trill that remains indelible 20 years later. Then she casts a spell on the audience, singing the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins tune in a performance that features Najimy and Parker as literal backup singers. Midler is an enchanting, subversive villain, as willing to steal the stage as she is to let the movie’s heroes destroy her in the end. That the film makes room for the excessiveness of her performance is Hocus Pocus’ enduring quality. It stands out from a host of other films from that era because it embraces its silliness, and then goes the extra mile to make sure that silliness is executed well. It’s a film made purely for entertainment value, without extra fat or pretension. That’s why it has lingered in the hearts of audiences, even when simple nostalgia has faded away. In its ability to take fun seriously, it stretches the imagination, and I still can’t help but sing along.