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'Hocus Pocus 2' proves this Hollywood flop is officially a Halloween cult classic

The original movie was terrible. However, the sequel is brilliant, and a reminder of why Disney has become the biggest success story in entertainment.
Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Sanderson, Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson, and Kathy Najimy as Mary Sanderson in "Hocus Pocus 2."
Sarah Jessica Parker as Sarah Sanderson, Bette Midler as Winifred Sanderson and Kathy Najimy as Mary Sanderson in "Hocus Pocus 2."Matt Kennedy / Disney+

Just in time for October and the hallowed “spooky season,” Disney+ debuts “Hocus Pocus 2,” the sequel to 1993’s box office flop “Hocus Pocus.” Original stars Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker return as the Sanderson Sisters, three witches who were driven out of Salem but return on the regular (or at least every time a virgin accidentally lights a black flame candle) to wreak havoc until morning. The original movie was terrible; Roger Ebert gave it a one-star review and thumbs-down. However, the sequel is brilliant, and a reminder of why Disney has become the biggest success story in entertainment.

To call the original “Hocus Pocus” a flop would be kind.

To call the original “Hocus Pocus” a flop would be kind. The first film was directed by Kenny Ortega (who would go on to be the driving force behind Disney’s hit “High School Musical” franchise) and was released during an era when box office films aimed at kids were typically released in the summer. The Halloween-set film thus arrived in mid-July.

At the time, Ebert described the film as one where “they’re all in on a joke but won’t explain it to you,” which checks out. Part of enjoying Midler’s character depends on knowing she was a gay icon who performed jazz standards in New York before “Beaches” made her a more mainstream, household name. (She sings “I Put a Spell on You” and “Witchcraft,” and her entire look feels like it’s begging to be turned into a drag costume.) Parker’s character could be read as a tribute to her Broadway roots, and very unrelated to the rom-com persona she was in the middle of cultivating. And then there are the cameos. For instance, both filmmaker Garry Marshall (who directed “Beaches”) and his sister Penny Marshall (best known for directing “A League of Their Own”) have an entire 10-minute comedy sequence with Midler, Parker and Najimy, where they appear as random characters, and go completely uncredited.

“Hocus Pocus,” which cost over $28 million to make, was estimated to have made only about $8 million on opening weekend. And it might have languished in Disney’s surprisingly large vault of live-action flops had it not been for the sudden rapid expansion of cable television following the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The removal of restrictions that prevented companies from cross-competing allowed Disney to buy ABC and cable staple The Family Channel and launch the Disney Channel, all of which required massive amounts of programming. And just like Lifetime leaned into Christmas movies, Disney harnessed the power of Halloween. It began debuting yearly films best described as family-friendly scary movies on the Disney Channel, smashed in between endless reruns of “Hocus Pocus.”

Maybe it was sheer repetition. Maybe it was magic. But cultural osmosis eventually turned a forgotten failure into a campy childhood classic. As with the yearly reruns of “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Thanksgiving, “Hocus Pocus” became a holiday tradition by simple, relentless exposure. There are people in their 20s who would never know their favorite Halloween tradition was once a flop. Moreover, and probably just as importantly, these fans are now in on those private jokes. The very thing that alienated critics and viewers in 1993 is what has endeared it to viewers in the decades since.

The savvy of “Hocus Pocus 2” is that it knows audiences have caught up to the jokes. It functions from the conceit that the Sanderson Sisters are now famous, because everyone has seen “Hocus Pocus.” Their return is partly orchestrated by an obsessed fanboy, they get recognized wherever they go, and people clamor for selfies. Even more tellingly, the new big musical number comes after the three are mistaken for contestants in the Sanderson Sisters drag competition, which includes contestants played by famous queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” (Both the drag queens and the real Sandersons lose the contest to the thinnest contestants on stage.)

The film also makes sure to update the Sanderson Sisters experience for the 21st century. Najimy’s famous sequence where she rides a vacuum cleaner because the cupboard doesn’t have a broom is replaced with her adopting a pair of pet Roombas to ride, which grow more feral as the film progresses. (Parker gets a Swiffer WetJet.) The new set of kids — played by Whitney Peak, Belissa Escobedo and Lilia Buckingham — trick the witches out of rounding up children to sacrifice by telling them beauty products made by the powerful witch “Wal Greens” are easier to procure. And at one point, Midler peers through a window to find a couple watching — what else? — the Garry and Penny Marshall sequence from the original film.

The original was not really a musical; the jazz standards were merely a Midler indulgence. But having successfully launched entire musical franchises, Disney is no longer afraid of the concept. Director Anne Fletcher (best known for “Step Up”) has a ball creating mass dance sequences to oldies like “One Way or Another.” The result is a joyful film that works well for both the 5-year-old child who is finally getting the hang of Halloween and the 15-year-old who still enjoys kid movies at heart. But most of all, it’s meant for those 25 and up, whom Disney spent the last two decades preparing to appreciate a new installment of a cult classic franchise in the making.