Hocus Pocus (1993)

Disney movies of the nineties are an odd lot. We millennials just go nuts over some of them, because they are a strong part of our collective childhoods. This was an era where you couldn’t escape ANY marketing campaign, because the company would use everything from cereal prizes to video games to remind you NOW IN THEATERS. Some, like A Goofy Movie and Nightmare Before Christmas, have remained lodged in our limited brainspace, drenched in rosy nostalgia juice, and now we buy all those Hot Topic t-shirts because we might actually have some expendable income. Then there are others like Homeward Bound, Cool Runnings, and Operation Dumbo Drop, which were unique live action fare that can be hit or miss for those who went to see these.

And then there’s Hocus Pocus.

Much like A Goofy Movie, this movie has become an iconic piece of nineties nostalgia, but unsung enough where it’s not placed front and center with all other of Disney’s premiere hits. Everyone buys pins and t-shirts of Pooh, Goofy, Cinderella, and Ariel, but there seems to be something that much more personal when you find that one of Powerline’s Stand Out tour. Because they don’t market it to death, it feels like a great find, like fate granted you a favor. And because we millennials have grown old enough to buy our own shirts, pins, and theme park tickets, Disney has recognized the power we wield, and has dredged up the Sanderson sisters for theme park appearances…

Merchandise…

And even…

But does the original hold up as a true Halloween classic? Scare a surreptitiously sinister spell as the Sandersons stalk Salem!

The plot: In Salem, Massachusetts, 1693, three batty sister witches Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary Sanderson (Kathy Najimy) are caught draining the life force out of a little girl and are sentenced to hang. But before they are executed, they cast a spell that will allow them to be resurrected should a virgin light the black flame candle on a full moon on All Hallows’ Eve.

Cut to 1993, Max Dennison (Omri Katz) has just moved to Salem from L.A. and is having a hard time fitting in, though his one goal seems to be trying to getting the attentions of Allison (Vinessa Shaw). He wants to be left to his usual bout of teen angstiness, but his parents force him to take his baby sister Dani (Thora Birch) out trick-or-treating. He hates doing it, but he sees an opportunity to spend some quality time with Allison. Allison shows Max what’s left of the Sanderson’s house (Now a tourist trap with most of everything left untouched), and because he wants to impress her, he lights the candle. 300 years removed from their mortal demise, the witches return, and realize they must feed on children’s souls in order to remain alive after sunset.

Realizing the stakes, Max, Allison, and Dani must find a way to eradicate the Sandersons before they kill the children of Salem, with nothing but Winifred’s spell book, a talking cat named Thackery Binx (Jason Marsden/Sean Murray), and even a zombie (Doug Jones). Meanwhile, the Sandersons scout for children, plot revenge on the gang, and deal with 20th century technology.

How’s the writing?: I found this movie extremely disorganized. There’s two stories going on and they don’t really mesh well. Ideally, the A-plot would be the conflict with Max and the girls, trying to save the town, but the characters are written so weakly you just don’t care. Max is the lead, Allison is the pretty girl he wants to bang, and Dani is the cute kid/victim with little wiggle room for much else. They spend the first few scenes after resurrecting the witches trying to warn (what they think is) a cop, and later their parents, and we’re treated to the usual trite “LOL oh you kids and your silly imaginations!” dismissal that’s just as repetitive as it is obnoxious and annoying. Max does come up with a few ideas that save them (because the chick isn’t allowed to save the day, even when five of the six main characters are female), but early on, he’s defined as kind of an impotent, surly teen with no real personality. Like… he gets bullied and loses his sneakers, but boasts about not believing in witches and, like an idiot, makes everything happen. Frankly, I just don’t care. He’s not particularly charming or clever or interesting. He just wants to stop the bad guys and win points with with Allison.

The B-plot is, of course, the witches. The main focus is their “fish-out-of-water” interactions, with the occasional realization they’re on a severe time crunch. These elements are at odds with each other, because they don’t really have time to goof around, but…without them riding a bus, meeting Garry Marshall (Whom they mistake for Satan), enchanting an entire auditorium to dance with a musical number, or all their internal bickering, most of the movie’s appeal would be lost.

I think back to something like Nightmare on Elm Street (With Englund, not Haley! Don’t even get me started!), where the victims were prominent in their struggles and they were clearly the stars, even if you can barely remember their names. Krueger’s shtick is never lost even with reduced screen time, because his personality is so over-the-top, much like Winnie, Sarah, and Mary. Krueger is still the undisputed star of the franchise, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. But if half the movie were him goofing around, however in character it was, and the victims were even more dull, it wouldn’t be as memorable.

Does it give the feels?: It wants to use cute little Dani to generate our sense of empathy, but Dani has enough bite to her she isn’t a complete victim, so you’re more focused on the older, stronger, smarter teens, who you know are going to be okay.

But another element is Thackery. They show Thackery was a human who led the charge to have the town execute the witches when they kidnapped his little sister, and as punishment, was turned into a cat. Because he wasn’t able to save her in time, his curse is to also be immortal, so he must live with the guilt. It’s a nice sentiment that has a nice payoff (Except for one line, but trust me, I’ll get to that.), but Thackery either makes quips or exposition throughout the movie. It’d be better if he had more of a tragic element to him, or at least shown better in the cat’s “acting”, but he seems a bit too detached. Add on a level of weird when Dani tells him she wants to adopt Thackery and take care of him, long after she’s well aware he’s a human cursed as a cat who can’t die.

One moment I despise is when the protagonists pop out of a manhole, Thackery gets run over by a bus. The movie even takes an emotional beat to allow the three to cry over the loss of this magic talking cat whom they met an hour ago. But moments later, he heals, shakes it off, and curtly reminds them he can’t be killed. I feel the film was trying to dupe me into feeling sorry for him, when it was just a demonstration of the circumstance he was under.

Who makes it worth it?: If you told me this movie was produced by Midler, Parker, and Najimy so the could goof around and make a movie at the same time, I’d believe it. All three are so hammy and are clearly loving every minute of what they’re doing. Midler has always been a diva on film, and she revels in every shriek, bark, or sneer she divulges as the de facto leader. Sarah is the ditzy blonde, easily overexcited and air-headed, and seemingly perpetually horny, which makes it easy for her as the most attractive of the three, though I question why she’s so eagerly into teenage boys. Mary is the dim but loyal one, whose strong suit is to be able to sniff out children.

For whatever reason, these three look like they’re having the time of their lives, and I swear some scenes weren’t even scripted, their dynamic looked and felt so natural and off-the-cuff. Even if they’re a bit hammy for you, their enthusiasm is infectious.

Best quality provided: In isolation, parts of this movie are, indeed, fun. I already talked about the ladies’ performances. The “I Put a Spell on You” scene stalls the plot, but is entertaining. The special effects are pretty good. The jokes from the witches, they’re pretty funny. Sarah’s bewitching song is eerie and lulling. Even that scene with Marshall is kind of perfect.

The movie has some real comedy. That’s undeniable. I just wish the movie were more cohesive and focused so it didn’t feel as sporadic and disjointed.

What could have been improved: What the flying cockamamie snarfblatt is this movie’s DEAL with the whole freaking “virgin” thing?!??

I’m not a pearl-clutching “Won’t someone think of the children?!” Chicken Little, but here are my questions/concerns:

1. Max, I think, is supposed to be around sixteen years old. A full-blown teen, freshly out of his puberty years and has his sights set on the similarly-aged teenaged girl, who is also – in America – underage. Why is the fact a sixteen year old is a virgin considered unusual, let alone worthy of scorn?

2. The movie winks and jokes about Max’s virgin status frequently. This is a typical gag in Hollywood, that a man who hasn’t had sex is a loser or otherwise pathetic (Cough cough The Forty-Year-Old Virgin…). To which I ask, why? Why does this movie hammer this joke over and over? Even if he were of age, it’s not funny.

3. This movie was produced and released under the Disney banner, despite having a subsidiary studio, Touchstone Pictures, made explicitly to produce Disney movies without tainting the gloved hands of the Mouse with anything more than a PG rating. Thanks to Touchstone, we got movies like Splash, Arachnophobia, Pretty Woman, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Nightmare Before Christmas. So it’s not as though Disney couldn’t release a movie with innuendo and/or subtext. Although clearly, this movie is meant to have a family-wide appeal, almost like a Disney Channel movie. So it makes the inclusion of having this element even more confusing.

4. I’m not against sexual innuendos or inference in movies, particularly if it’s done cleverly enough that it goes over kids’ heads. Heck, those are some of my favorite episodes of Dinosaurs. If the jokes were limited to Sarah’s obsession with boys, or the bus driver’s line about “A couple of tries”, I would simply raise an eyebrow. If the mom’s Madonna costume was the worst of it, fine. Maybe, just maybe, I might even forgive Dani talking about “yabos” (A term I sure as smoo never heard, even well into adult years), as frighteningly bizarre as it is. But man, they really don’t want you to forget that Max is a proven virgin, a cop even pokes fun at him for it (Even if he was really a cop, which is another legal issue altogether), and yes, the last line in the movie is a snarky quip from Thackery about it. It’s supposed to be a big, emotional payoff, and it gets soiled when he says “I had to wait three hundred years for a virgin to like a candle!” Jeez, way to undercut the moment, Binx.

Verdict: If you love seeing Parker hop around repeating “Amok, amok, amok!” Or the meme-worthy quotes from Winifred, I totally get it. If you watch this every Halloween, I get it. If you watch it because it’s just the right amount of silliness and camp that you enjoy, more power to you. But the whole “virgin” thing, because it’s so tenuously tied to the plot and repeatedly brought up, plus the scattered narrative and the dull portrayal of Max and Allison, I can’t untangle those from what positives I do get out of it. And I legit want to. But it just isn’t enough for me to enjoy it the way I want to. I give this movie five Calming Circles out of ten.

Here’s hoping the sequel is an improvement.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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