Hocus Pocus 2 Review: The Extra Silly, Extra Nostalgic Sequel Loses Its Magic

Over the past three decades, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy have become unexpected camp (and to an extent, queer) Halloween icons — a status earned by endless Disney Channel and cable reruns of "Hocus Pocus," Kenny Ortega's 1993 fantasy family comedy that most will fondly look back upon as a stone-cold childhood classic. The reality is that "Hocus Pocus" is just all right — a movie buoyed by the charisma of its stars and by Ortega's own musical theatre chops.

But at this point, the ardor for "Hocus Pocus" has taken a life of its own, burying the movie's actual quality underneath Halloween festivals, drag shows, and karaoke singalongs. "Hocus Pocus" has become more iconography than movie, and its sequel, "Hocus Pocus 2," is a direct result of that.

"Hocus Pocus 2" is all iconography and cheap nostalgia nods — a shallow reiteration of the original whose only bright spots are when Midler, Parker, Najimy, and fellow returning cast member Doug Jones are onscreen doing their thing (and not losing a step 29 years later). Despite a game cast and a more knowingly queer, female-forward approach, "Hocus Pocus 2" can't help but feel like the shambling corpse of Billy Butcherson — still alive and kicking (and a lot sassier), but at what cost?

Which witch?

Taking place 29 years after the events of the first "Hocus Pocus," the sequel follows aspiring witch Becca ("Gossip Girl" star Whitney Peak), who has been engaging in a Halloween ritual with her two best friends for years: Every Halloween, they light a candle in the woods outside Salem and chant some gobbledygook to make-believe at witchcraft. But one of those friends, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), is no longer invited since she's started dating the popular boy at school (a vapid Froy Gutierrez) and began hanging with his friends. Feeling stung at receiving a late invite to Cassie's Halloween house party, Becca and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo, whose sole direction seems to be "quirky") head to the Olde Salem Magic Shoppe, the local magic shop based out of the Sanderson Sisters' old cottage run by town kook Gilbert (Sam Richardson). There they listen to Gilbert's enthusiastic recounting of the Sanderson Sisters' story before buying a bizarre candle special-made by Gilbert — one that he gave a "special something" he tells them.

But before we find out what Halloween night has in store for our new teen protagonists, we must go back 300 years, to Salem, 1653, where the young Sanderson Sisters (played by Tylor Henderson, Nina Kitchen, and Juju Journey Brener, all of whom seem to have taken lessons in camp) are banished from Salem by the inflexible reverend (an absurd Tony Hale, the standout new cast member of the movie). They flee to the woods where they meet the glamorous Mother Witch (Hannah Waddingham, making a meal out of her too-brief appearance), who gifts them the spell book and kickstarts their journey as the most powerful witches in history. Witches who will, naturally, get accidentally revived once again by Becca and Izzy — this time, returning with an all-new dance number!

"Hocus Pocus 2" is all too aware of how beloved Midler, Parker, and Najimy were as the Sanderson Sisters. Within the movie, their celebrity has taken over Salem, with dozens of people dressing up as the sisters for Halloween and begging for selfies with the originals when they see them. And where they were clearly the charismatic villains of the first film, "Hocus Pocus 2" can't resist turning them into sympathetic protagonists of sorts, opening with the misunderstood sisters as children and giving them a hollow "empowered women taking back the world" storyline with their quest for revenge against the reverend, whose descendent is once again played by Tony Hale. But in turning the Sanderson Sisters into the deuteragonists of the film, it makes the already low stakes of "Hocus Pocus 2" feel even lower, zapping whatever slim momentum the movie had to begin with.

Bothered and bewildered

There's a prevailing problem that's starting to become apparent with more and more Disney movies: the lack of conflict. Sometimes it manifests in the lack of a villain (see: "Encanto," "Soul," "Onward," etc.) and sometimes, as in the case of "Hocus Pocus 2," it manifests in the form of "it was all a big misunderstanding!" The latter is the most egregious, and in "Hocus Pocus 2," it completely deprives the movie of any of its edges. The rift between Becca and Cassie was all just because of a miscommunication; the popular kids aren't bullies, they're just well-meaning himbos. The Sanderson Sisters are misunderstood women ahead of their time! Even the evil spellbook, so creepy and sinister-looking with its darting eye, gets the sympathetic treatment — so much so that it starts to more closely resemble the cute teary-eyed emoji towards the end of the film.

When there is no actual conflict, the film's already low stakes start to feel meaningless, and the characters' bumbling hijinks around town start to feel tiresome. Conflict is necessary to inject urgency into a film, and as a result, "Hocus Pocus 2" starts to really flag halfway through, once the shine of nostalgia starts to fade and Midler, Parker, and Najimy start to run out of musical numbers to perform. Director Anne Fletcher ("The Proposal") attempts to bring some visual energy to Jen D'Angelo's bare script by throwing in far too many Dutch angles and overusing the smoke machines, but the magic has faded. "Hocus Pocus 2" is little more than a reanimated corpse turned into a comedy mule — and like Jones' wildly underused Billy Butcherson, it deserved better.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10