“Winnie, do you want to hit me? Will that cheer you up?”
What began as a script for a made-for-TV Disney Channel movie, Hocus Pocus found its way onto the right desk at the right time for the increased level of support necessary to transition it into a bona fide theatrical release. Sadly for all involved, though, the critics more or less hated it and the box office barely squeaked by its production budget. Yet somehow everyone I knew who had seen it as a child possessed a strange affinity for it, ensuring its status as a cult favorite. Disney acknowledged as much with a Blu-ray release last year and here I was settling down to watch it as our Halloween selection two decades later. It definitely isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, but even today it remains a pretty good romp.
With the background described above, it should come as no surprise to discover that many of those involved behind the scenes came from television and/or would continue their careers in the medium. Director Kenny Ortega—hot off the success of Newsies—would go on to helm three High School Musical productions for the Mouse House, story creator David Kirschner is known for his role in An American Tail’s genesis, and screenwriters Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert both possess credits on a number of genre work for the big and small screens. It’s a balanced team of artists who are each familiar with one or more of the comedy, horror, and family-friendly classifications, traits that have helped the film pass down to new generations due to parents who’ve remembered its three-pronged appeal.
On the surface it’s a witch tale wherein a three hundred-year old prophecy declares the return of the Sanderson sisters courtesy of an unwitting virgin lighting the black flame candle preserved inside their 17th century home currently lying dormant as a museum to their legend. Led by Winifred (Bette Midler)—a power-hungry sorceress intent on stealing the life force of Salem’s children in order to preserve her beauty—these trio rounded out by eccentric sycophant Mary (Kathy Najimy) and vane dullard Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) were in the midst of casting their spell on young Emily (Jodie-Amy Rivera) when her brother Thackery (Sean Murray) intervened. Too late to save her, however, Winnie turns the boy into an immortal cat to live with his guilt for eternity right before she’s captured and hung by villagers.
Fast-forwarding to the nineties, the fire, brimstone, and period garb are replaced by California transplant Max (Omri Katz) and a coming-of-age tale of adolescent angst. Bullied by Jay (Tobias Jelinek) and Ice (Larry Bagby); embarrassed at school when attempting to ask out Miss Popular (Vinessa Shaw’s Allison); and saddled with taking his eight-year old sister Dani (Thora Birch) out trick-or-treating while their parents (Stephanie Faracy and Charles Rocket) enjoy an adults-only costume party, saying his situation was less than ideal would be a gross understatement. Serendipity prevails, however, so he and Dani can stumble in on a bored Allison at her family’s stuffy Victorian-themed soiree. Being that her mom used to run the old Sanderson museum, she escorts them over for some local Salem culture where Max proceeds to dare himself into lighting the candle.
The Sandersons are released, their thirst for souls is reinvigorated, and only the three kids who release them know the folktale has been proven real. Thackery the cat—self-proclaimed guarder of the flame—joins their team as the witches bumble about like fish out of water having very visceral reactions to all the new technology they stumble upon. With zombified Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones) reanimated to work as the girls’ henchman and the adults trapped in a magic dance loop at their party so as not to interfere, it falls onto Max and his cohorts to prove their mettle and find a way to stop Winnie’s evil plans. A farcical comedy of errors ensues with a ton of slapstick and a healthy dose of mistaken identity courtesy of the Sandersons fitting right into the town’s Halloween festivities.
I’ll say it right now: the acting on the kids’ behalf leaves a lot to be desired. Their performances are more reactionary than anything and as a result are best when acting against the witches in a frightened or emboldened capacity. When they must initiate conversation and engage one another in embarrassing situations, however, it gets to be more than a little hamfisted. Birch is overly precocious, Shaw closer to bland than not, and Katz too reliant on bugging out his eyes for fear, surprise, and awkwardness. They do all scream 90s, though, to allow most of the film’s charm to rest in its nostalgia. You could say Hocus Pocus is a bit of a time capsule of a simpler time when we were allowed to run amok in our neighborhoods without the threat of abduction.
The child actors don’t necessarily have to be better than they are, though, because we all know how this thing is going to end. The real fun therefore comes from Midler, Parker, and Najimy chewing scenery and going for broke every time they’re onscreen. Bette gets a song, Kathy expertly works her smile for comic effect, and Sarah excels at playing the simpleton with ADD-esque timing and the childlike glee her younger protagonists lack considering their dire circumstances. Add their memorable costumes and make-up and they really bring these goofy witches to life inside the rather cartoonish setting the filmmakers have created. Between those three and Jones’ hysterical physical comedy as the zombie who holds a grudge, the laughs don’t stop—continuing on through the first portion of the end credits as well.