Like one of those horrifying potions the Sanderson Sisters brew to suck the life out of children, Hocus Pocus is filled with a lot of rank and sketchy ingredients. It features arguably the most pitiful, unlikeable protagonist in the eighty-plus year history of Walt Disney Pictures. It dispenses groan-worthy jokes like fun-sized candy bars, and its characters behave without reason or logic whenever the plot, which is ludicrous in its own right, needs them to do so. It’s consistently cheesy, occasionally stupid and yet, arguably, the most likeable family Halloween movie of all-time.
Some of this, of course, is due to a serious lack of competition. There aren’t a ton of great films for the second grade crowd that involve reincarnated witches, but even if there were, this one would stand near the top of the pack thanks to a lot of intelligent and shrewd formatting decisions made by director Kenny Ortega. Best known for choreographing Dirty Dancing and helming the High School Musical movies, Ortega keeps the action in Hocus Pocus brisk, the tone pretty zany and the focus, as it should be, on the Sanderson Sisters.
Winifred (Bette Midler), Mary (Kathy Najimy) and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) might not be the main characters of the film, but they most assuredly are its biggest strengths. When we first meet them, they’re coaxing a beautiful little girl to her death. Three hundred years after they’re hung for sucking the victim’s life force to make themselves younger, a virgin (Omri Katz) mistakenly reincarnates them by lighting an enchanted candle. This fish out of water premise coupled with the ladies’ basic quest (murdering more children) makes for a wonderful combination of humor and creepiness.
Ordinarily, a character can only offer one or the other, but because we’ve seen Winifred turn people into cats and shoot lightning bolts out of her fingers, we know she’s not to be trifled with. Yet, because we’ve also seen her mistake firemen for witch hunters and roads for black rivers, she and her sisters are wonderful fodder for comedy. The two-pronged offering makes the women constantly watchable, and helps keep the momentum up, which is probably the main reason why the film is still routinely watched nineteen years after it was released.
Hocus Pocus is snappy. It’s ninety-seven minutes on the go. Following the intriguing, well put together first scene set in the 1690s, almost all of the action takes place over the course of one evening. It never lingers for too long in one place and introduces plenty of hilarious side characters, including a fake cop and Garry and Penny Marshall playing an older couple mistaken for Satan and Medusa. When the energy begins to sour, there’s always a choreographed song and dance number or a run-in with a bully or something else to inject life, even into the few characters who lack spirit.
The most wooden of the offerings is Max Dennison, the aforementioned virgin who lights the Black Flame Candle. He’s not sympathetic or likeable. He acts like a d-bag and gives the hottest girl (Vinessa Shaw) in school his number in the middle of class; yet, he lets two idiotic bullies named Jay and Ice take his shoes without throwing a punch. He’s not particularly nice to his awesome sister Dani (Thora Birch), and he’s not confident in his own abilities. He’s pretty much a complete throwaway alongside his parents (Charles Rocket, Stephanie Faracy), but since he’s usually in the middle of doing something exciting or interacting with other characters who are far more interesting, his presence isn’t a huge dealbreaker. It’s just one of the few annoyances, alongside an occasional lack of plot explanation and bad jokes, that make Hocus Pocus more enjoyable and watchable than honest and great.
In some ways, that’s a critique. Hocus Pocus isn’t great. There are dozens of moments a viewer could point to and question. There are gaps in logic and there is an abounding shallowness, but in other ways, it's light-hearted tone and willingness to have fun at the expense of all else is why it regularly airs on television almost two decades later. It’s a trade-off, but all things considered, it’s probably a good one.
The back of the Hocus Pocus Blu-ray + DVD combo pack touts “Disney Enhanced High Definition Picture And Sound” under its special features. For a film originally released in 1993 that was never meant to look overly pretty, it does look and sound a little better than you would expect. So, this set has that going for it. Unfortunately, it makes no attempt at offering anything else, unless you’re feeling generous and counting subtitles.