As I mentioned in my previous article about Hocus Pocus, the Sanderson sisters have been a part of my life for…well, my entire life. My mom always says that Hocus Pocus is the first film she ever showed me. Obviously, I don’t remember that, but we always had copies of the film around the house, so it would make sense. And given my longstanding interest in horror comedies and horror comedy musicals…many of which I’ve written about for this site…it explains a lot, really.
Of course, then, it’s only fitting that I review the long-awaited, much-anticipated…Hocus Pocus 2, now streaming on Disney+!
I made sure to watch Hocus Pocus just before Hocus Pocus 2 so I’d pick up on as many details as possible.
Now, to quote Winifred Sanderson…
Making a sequel is always tough for many reasons, from striving to get schedules to work again to worries about not living up to the original. These challenges no doubt grow when the first film is beloved and when it has no other sequels to speak of. These challenges grow exponentially as the sequel sneaks further and further from the original’s release date. In that case, the fans have the first embedded in their memories. If you stick too close to what was done before because it worked the first time, then a sequel was basically pointless. If you stray too far, you risk undermining the original and undoing everything it set up.
Kudos to director Anne Fletcher and screenwriter Jen D’Angelo for not only taking on such a hefty assignment but for making it magical. Hocus Pocus 2 uses so much of what makes the first Hocus Pocus special without doing it “again,” but doing it with a new twist. It keeps the lore set up by the original and expands upon it. In case there are any contradictions, this film reminds us that most of what Salem knows about the Sanderson Sisters comes from legend…and legends can, legendarily, be wrong. At first, it seems like it’s going to be the same story as the first film, but then, it takes a turn. There’s a little less talk of devil-worshipping, but there’s a little more insight into the Sanderson Sisters; besides, if you’ve seen the first film, you already know they do that. And yet, the Sanderson Sisters are still just as funny and as much of a threat as in the previous film. Yes, the witches sing. But it’s not the same song, and the songs are used for different purposes.
Clearly, Hocus Pocus 2 had a cast and crew who adore the original. Not only do the original Sanderson Sisters, Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, reprise their roles as Winifred, Sarah, and Mary Sanderson, respectively, but so does Doug Jones as Billy Butcherson. So much of the crew on this film also worked on the original. John Debney returns as the composer. David Kirschner, credited for the story and as a producer in the original, returns for the story and as executive producer. I’m sure there are many others.
Like Hocus Pocus, Hocus Pocus 2 starts in 17th century Salem but back farther: on Winifred’s 16th birthday in 1653. This origin story of the Sanderson Sisters efficiently shows the origin not only of how the sisters officially became witches and obtained the famous Book and how both their unconventional personalities and the judgmental townsfolk around them pushed them down that path but also where Winnie’s fear of aging may originate and how they found some of their favorite spells.
While the sisters are already outcasts in Salem, their growth into witches is spurred on by Reverend Traske (Tony Hale) insisting Winnie, who’s just turned 16, marry his son after her father’s death. When she refuses, he attempts to take Mary and Sarah to another family and banishes Winnie from Salem. They flee into the Forbidden Wood only to find out why it’s so forbidden. Here, Winnie gets her Book.
The sisters’ love for each other and their gleeful pursuit of revenge carry them on from there.
Credit to the three actors taking on the roles and doing quite well channeling their mannerisms and vocal affectations. Taylor Paige Henderson has many of Bette Midler’s recognizable hand and arm gestures and has to talk through Winnie’s famous teeth. Nina Kitchen has Kathy Najimy’s distinct crooked bottom lip: this may seem easy to do for a moment, but try holding it for a while and then talking while keeping it in place. Juju Journey Brener has Sarah Jessica Parker’s higher voice, easily excitable nature, and mannerisms and use of her longer hair. Given that Sarah in the first film was the most overtly flirtatious of the sisters, translating the character to a younger performer in a way that’s recognizable, but not inappropriate for the young actor, had to take some work. Kudos to all involved in this origin story opening.
In the present, we encounter our new protagonists, Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo), who are estranged from former best friend and Mayor Jefrey Traske’s daughter, Cassie (Lilia Buckingham). Mayor Traske (also Tony Hale) is the identical descendant of Reverend Traske.
Since so many are understandably going to discuss Midler, Najimy, Parker, and Jones’ return to the franchise, I’d like to also give shout-outs to the newcomers. Peak and Escobedo make a good team. Both are clever and use their wits to outsmart the Sanderson Sisters. Peak plays Becca’s sarcasm and cynical edge well. Escobedo as Izzy is very funny and still smart with an understanding and open nature. Buckingham, though assumed to be turning into a “high school mean girl,” shows from her introduction that there’s more to Cassie than this assumption, which makes her later character development feel natural. It would’ve been easy to make each of the three protagonists a carbon copy of a Sanderson Sister’s personality, and while there are some parallels, they are distinct from their 1600s-era “counterparts.”
Becca and Izzy plan to celebrate Becca’s 16th birthday by continuing their annual tradition of performing a ritual and following up with a scary movie marathon. This year, Cassie won’t be joining them. Before heading off to perform the ritual, Gilbert (Sam Richardson), owner of the local magic shop that now inhabits the witch’s cottage (I guess that Sanderson Sister museum never reopened…), gives a free candle to his favorite customers and entertains his shop’s other guests with the story of the Sanderson Sisters.
Sam Richardson is also quite funny as Gilbert. Unlike the first film, where no adults were directly involved in helping either the witches or the protagonists, Gilbert plays a relatively active role in the story, toeing the line between protagonist and antagonist. Richardson has great chemistry with an equally funny Doug Jones as Billy Butcherson, who gets to talk more now since he sliced open the threads sewing his mouth shut in the last film.
…Wait, didn’t Billy go back to his grave at the end of Hocus Pocus? Why is he here?
After Becca and Izzy light the candle Gilbert gifted them and begin their ritual…you can guess what happens. What you may not guess is that it leads directly into the Sanderson Sisters’ first musical number to announce…“The Witches Are Back”!
Also, well done on the song’s ending. I’ll admit that I was not expecting that. More spooky songs should end like that.
Speaking of musical numbers…yes, that word is plural. Hocus Pocus 2 features two musical numbers from the Sanderson Sisters. The powers that be behind the soundtrack also made sure not to repeat an oversight: the original Hocus Pocus soundtrack did not include either the in-film or credits version of “I Put a Spell on You,” but Hocus Pocus 2’s soundtrack includes both of the witch’s songs, so you can sing and dance along anytime.
As for the main witches…they act as they always have…which is a wonderful, enchanting delight. Midler, Najimy, and Parker are a joy whenever they’re onscreen. They’re clearly having a ball, but are also giving performances that allow the audience to have a ball watching them. Whether they’re casting wicked spells, singing and dancing with a darker ulterior motive, over-dramatically crying and wailing, lost in the world of 2022, or menacing whoever looks at them the wrong way, you never want to miss so much as an eyebrow twitch from them. This helps in the climactic scene, where they show a deeper level we haven’t seen before: since we’re used to focusing on their every move, we won’t miss this major moment.
I also want to bring attention to the score because of what an achievement the score accomplishes. It sounds like a Hocus Pocus movie. The score’s as fun, exciting, engrossing, and thrilling as it was in 1993. In some cases, that’s because it’s exactly the score from 1993. Yet, the original score blends with the new score so well that you may not even notice unless you’re specifically listening for it. Well done, John Debney, for integrating the two scores in a way that doesn’t feel like he just dug out his sheet music from the original, but also doesn’t feel like he shredded it all and started from scratch.
There are so many lovely callbacks to cement this as both a continuation of and a tribute to the original film. The witches recall things they learned in 1993, even when they’re wrong, such as Mary’s comment about a “small bus,” or Winifred’s insistence that this time if they see a teenager, they’ll “kill it.” Sarah and Mary struggle again to find brooms and get updated vehicles that feel like the logical next step in last-minute cleaning-supply transportation.
There are also callbacks that are very subtle, but so fun when you notice them, like at the Salem Scare Fest…
Oh, and before you go…stay until after the credits.
If you’ve already done so, read on…
The post-credits scene gives two teases. I’m sure most of us are keen enough to figure out what the box labeled “B.F. Candle #2” contains. But the final iris doesn’t close on the label or even the box… but on the watchful eye of Cobweb, the black cat who’s been intriguingly helpful throughout the film, standing guard next to it.
Whether or not the changes Hocus Pocus 2 brings to the cauldron work for you is up to your personal taste. They’re two films that are as different as they are similar, which is a tricky balance for any sequel to strike. For me, Hocus Pocus 2 conjures up a wickedly fun potion, especially when the Sanderson Sisters or Billy Butcherson are onscreen, using ingredients from the original to make a new brew that has a similar taste, but different effects…and leaves a few drops…just in case. If a virgin lit a candle twice, who’s to say it won’t happen again one day?
There are three Sanderson Sisters, so why not a third film?