Forget amusement parks and hockey teams. It's in movie comedies that Disney is having its real crisis, as evidenced by this would-be laugh-getter that begins with the murder of a child and a triple hanging.
In 1693 Salem, Massachusetts, three witch-sisters--Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy)--are hanged after killing a little girl to prolong their own lives and turning her brother into Binx, a talking black cat doomed to live for eternity. Cut to
Halloween, 1993. Newly moved with his family from LA, teenager Max (Omri Katz) is having trouble adjusting. He gets shouted down in class, flirted with and then ignored by sexy classmate Allison (Vinessa Shaw). His offense in class was snorting at the tale of the three local legendary witches.
Allison worked at the witches' house, which had been preserved and turned into a museum, now closed.
Max gets beaten up by local bullies and then browbeaten into taking his bratty sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick-or-treating. When they stumble into Allison's house, she's warmer to Max and takes him up on a challenge to prove the truth of the witch story by breaking into their house. There, Max
tempts fate by lighting a black-flame candle that brings the witches to life for Halloween night only, unless they can find new youngsters to kill, with Dani the leading candidate. Helped by Binx, who has lived at the house since the spell was cast, they thwart the witches and watch them turn to
dust with dawn's first light.
HOCUS POCUS on paper would seem to have everything going for it, with three top screen comediennes in the leading roles, a potentially interesting idea for a film in which to star them, and eye-catching, ingenious special effects. Producer David Kirschner has a special knack in the latter area.
His major credits include the CHILD'S PLAY series and AN AMERICAN TAIL. His key critter creation here is Binx, who is so seamlessly and fluidly executed that it's virtually impossible to tell where the real cat leaves off and the special effects take over. However, it's indicative of the film's
problems that he never has much of a part to play.
Under direction that can only be described as scatterbrained by choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega (NEWSIES), HOCUS POCUS runs off in so many directions at once that it keeps tripping over itself behind a plot that doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. Binx is trapped under a spell
cast by the dead witches that can only be broken by bringing the witches back to life and killing them again. Before you can say, "Run that by me again?", Binx is forgotten, and the film is dashing off into another nonsensical direction. The witches, having been brought back to life, cast a spell
over all the children of Salem so they can kill them for revenge. Having done that, however, they then spend the film's last half hour risking everything to get Dani, as if she were the only child in Salem. Add the fatally mixed moods--how funny can child-killers be, even if they are played by
three of the screen's top comediennes?--and the only possible result is certain failure. Or HOCUS POCUS, which even uncredited cameos by director-siblings Garry and Penny Marshall, cleverly cast as husband and wife, can't save. Parker comes close to making the film watchable with the role of the
simplest sister, an airhead to end all airheads with a body built for evil and the attention span of a Pekingese. Put her and the talking cat together, and you might have a pretty good film. (Adult situations, violence.)
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