File Hocus Pocus 2 under "things we thought we wanted but really don't need." There's no way this much-requested sequel to a 1993 flop that millennials turned into a relentless Halloween fixture could ever live up to the unquenchable ideal of childhood memory. To be fair, it could be worse. But in shedding the original's director, peppering the Salem scenery with CGI that looks garish instead of kitschy, and reuniting the oft-impersonated witch trio nearly 30 years later, something was bound to get lost. You can't brew the same potion twice.
The people responsible for Hocus Pocus 2 (premiering Sept. 30 on Disney+) seem aware of their odds, so they ratchet everything way, way up. Half an hour in, when the infamous Sanderson sisters (Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy, but you already knew that) return from purgatory by way of the revivifying black-flame candle, they perform a G-rated rendition of Elton John's "The Bitch Is Back," replete with lackluster choreography. This isn't the movie's first red flag, nor its last, but it stands out because of the bustling bloat on display. Instead of clever dialogue, the actresses are reintroduced via a thundering, awkward pop number.
Things intermittently perk up, like a fish-out-of-water sequence in which the operatic Winifred (Midler), guileless Sarah (Parker), and daffy Mary (Najimy) mistake modern-day Walgreens cosmetics for the 17th-century potions they once knew. Yet the film keeps trafficking in overkill, almost as if it were designed with GIFs instead of narrative momentum in mind. For all its talk of virginal sorcery and child-hunting villains, the sequel comes off as more juvenile than its predecessor.
Replacing Hocus Pocus director Kenny Ortega is Anne Fletcher, a journeywoman whose credits include 27 Dresses, The Proposal, and several This Is Us episodes. She coats the night streets in otherworldly volumes of fog and manages to avoid a total aesthetic rehash. The same can't be said for Workaholics alum Jen D'Angelo's script, derived from a story concocted with David Kirschner, who conceptualized the original. The teens this go-round are two scrappy girls, Becca (Gossip Girl's Whitney Peak) and Izzy (American Horror Stories' Belissa Escobedo), both disappointed that their longtime BFF (Zoe Valentine's Lilia Buckingham) would rather party with the popular kids than maintain their Halloween traditions. When Becca and Izzy unwittingly conjure the Sandersons back to life, they face the same mission as the 1993 protagonists: stopping the sisters from achieving black-magic immortality.
Who are we kidding, though? No one is watching Hocus Pocus 2 for the heroes. We are watching for Midler, Parker, and Najimy, whose work many critics panned back in 1993. Roger Ebert scorched Midler in particular: "She goes into her hyper mode and tries to use noise as a substitute for acting," he wrote. But these women clearly knew they were making a goofy kids' movie, and while none achieved the divinity of, say, Anjelica Huston in The Witches, their quirks became amusing instruments in a memorable three-piece orchestra.
Midler hasn't forgotten the delectable Norma Desmond notes she played three decades ago, but Parker and Najimy's Sandersons seem to have suffered concussions in the intervening years. They speak with bizarre affectations and seem alternately bored and bewildered. Cast alongside actors who have done far more compelling work elsewhere — Tony Hale, Sam Richardson, and Cruel Summer's Froy Gutierrez, who lands some hearty laughs as a dumb-jock type — they offer a case study in subjecting Hollywood talent to uninspired nostalgia. If there's an MVP, it's go-to movie monster Doug Jones, who infuses the sardonic zombie Billy Butcherson with a Mick Jagger saunter.
Beyond its mere existence, here's how we know Hocus Pocus 2 has been subjected to the all-powerful internet gauntlet: What was initially gleeful escapism now has a message. So much of today's pop culture wants to preach, and too often those sermons substitute satisfying plot. It's no major spoiler to say that Hocus Pocus 2 ends with extended feel-good gibberish about the power of sisterhood, misunderstanding what was enjoyable about its predecessor. Winifred Sanderson learning a moral lesson is like a vampire losing her fangs.
Most diehards who pined for this movie will thrill at the sight of Winifred vamping about in her buck teeth and British cadence. That alone may be enough. But will they return to Hocus Pocus 2 the way they have Hocus Pocus? Doubtful. It doesn't reach the deliciousness of Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again or the emotional savvy of Top Gun: Maverick, proving that most generational touchstones aren't meant to be resurrected.
Premieres: Friday, Sept. 30 on Disney+
Who's in it: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Doug Jones, Whitney Peak, Belissa Escobedo, Lilia Buckingham, Froy Gutierrez, Tony Hale, Sam Richardson, Hannah Waddingham
Who's behind it: Anne Fletcher (director), Jen D'Angelo (screenwriter)
For fans of: Nostalgia run amok