Classic Review: Hocus Pocus (1993)
“Hocus Pocus” stars Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Omri Katz, Thora Birch, and Vinessa Shaw. Released on July 16, 1993, the film is about a teenage boy who accidentally resurrects a trio of witches.
The film was directed by Kenny Ortega, who also directed films such as “Newsies”, “High School Musical”, and “Descendants”. Hold on to that witches brew, boys and girls, because I got another witch-related film to talk about, and it’s from Disney. This should be fun. Before he turned “High School Musical” and “Descendants” into cultural musical phenomenons, choreographer/director Kenny Ortega helmed two theatrical films for Disney, “Newsies” in 1992 and the main topic of my review, “Hocus Pocus” in 1993, with the latter being a straight-up fantasy-comedy instead of the usual musical film that Ortega is known for. The film was released during the summer season instead of Halloween in order to attract a lot of children that are off from school. Unfortunately, the strategy didn’t turn out as well as the studio hoped, mostly due to being overshadowed by another family film, “Free Willy”. In addition to being a commercial disappointment, it also received mixed-to-negative reviews from critics upon release. Years later, the film was rediscovered by audiences through annual airings on television, resulting in massive spikes in home video sales every Halloween season. It became a cult classic for Halloween fans later on. Given how popular it is, I thought it would be good for me to finally see what makes it a “classic” to begin with, especially since Disney is already developing a sequel to it for Disney+. I didn’t remember watching this film all the way through as I was growing up because of my focus towards other Halloween-related materials. With Halloween being today, I figured now would be the best time for me to experience this kid-friendly spook-fest from start to finish. With that in mind, let’s ride our brooms into the sky and see what I’ve been missing.
The story follows Max Dennison (Katz), a teenager who just moved from Los Angeles to Salem, Massachusetts with his parents and his younger sister Dani (Birch). While trick-or-treating with Dani, he encounters a mysterious cottage and inadvertently revives a trio of witches (known as the Sanderson sisters), who were hanged for their crimes 300 years ago. They placed a spell on themselves so that they will be resurrected during a full moon on All Hallows’ Eve when a virgin lights the Black Flame Candle. The sisters, Winnifred (Midler), Sarah (Parker), and Mary (Najimy), have the power to absorb a child’s youth and regain their own in order to live forever. In terms of them making themselves young for eternity, they’re the 90s interpretation of Mother Gothel from “Tangled”. With the help of his new friend Allison (Shaw) and an immortal black cat with a mysterious past (voiced by Jason Marsden), Max and Dani must find a way to send this villainous trio back to their graves once and for all before they harm any more children. This is another dark fantasy film from Disney that combines kid-friendly scares with a sense of fun and charm in its environment and the characters, which was something that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” did three months after it. What these two films have in common is that they’re both made by Disney, they’re both classified as cult classics, and they’re both part of a Halloween tradition for families who are in need of some spooky fun without giving the kids nightmares for weeks. What sets them apart, however, is that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is an animated masterpiece that has wonderful characters, fantastic visuals, memorable songs, and an engaging plot. “Hocus Pocus”, on the other hand, is a harmlessly hokey live-action horror comedy that features bland characters and a story that’s as thin as ice, but admittedly, it isn’t without its fair share of likable moments. I think what made “Hocus Pocus” such a Halloween classic for people is that even though the story was a bit of a mess (in terms of the characters and the direction it took), it had that type of appeal in its narrative that kept them from resisting its mesmerizing spell. The majority of that appeal has to do with the three main actresses: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy. They are, without a doubt, the best parts of the film because of the energetic chemistry between them and the distinct personalities they brought to their characters, the Sanderson sisters. I also really liked the characters’ experiences with modern technology as well as the modern Halloween traditions, which brought out some pretty good laughs. Yes, they’re obviously the main villains in the film, but they’re the type of villains that you couldn’t help but love every time they’re onscreen. As for the main characters, which consists of Max, Dani, and Allison, that’s where the film fell flat for me. For the character of Max, the film was attempting to portray a fish-out-of-water story that has him struggling to fit in when he moved to Salem with his family and trying to impress Allison. It also displays the sibling relationship between Max and his little sister Dani. With those elements, the film had the opportunity to be a true Halloween classic. Problem is, it lacked the proper depth needed to make me care more about these characters, especially Max, who I thought was pretty mediocre in terms of character development. The young actors’ performances for these characters were also not as highly memorable as the main actresses, although Thora Birch was the most tolerable as Dani. On the plus side, it did feature a couple of well-known supporting actors, such as Jason Marsden, who is known for providing the official voice of Goofy’s son Max Goof, and Doug Jones, the actor responsible for portraying some of Guillermo del Toro’s most memorable creatures. Jones plays the zombified Billy Butcherson who is sent by Midler’s Winifred to catch the main characters, in case you’re wondering. Some of the visual effects held up fairly well for a film that’s made in the 1990s, especially the practical ones. The CGI for the cat’s facial expressions can be a bit weird at times. Fortunately, it didn’t get to the point where it looked jarring or dated.
Overall, “Hocus Pocus” still has its share of issues that prevented it from successfully casting its spell, but it also has its share of moments that made it an enjoyable Halloween treat in the first place. It’s easy for me to admit that it’s not a masterpiece when it comes to its story and the main characters. However, it did its job at being a harmless family film that was just made to entertain the young kids and their parents as well as the people who grew up with it. The chemistry between the three main actresses, its respectable amount of spooky charm, and its tolerable use of special effects are what kept this film going strong today and will continue to do so for many years to come. Here’s hoping that its legacy doesn’t get tarnished by its upcoming sequel.
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