Hocus Pocus Revisited

Disney Plus is giving my family the opportunity to watch some of the lesser luminaries of the Mouse House’s back catalog. For some reason, I have a fascination with catching up on some of the live action Disney movies that I missed as a kid. It probably stems from the opening sequence of ads that ran before the tapes of old cartoons that my sisters and I watched as kids. Right before Donald, Mickey, and Goofy, each tape would run a long ad for movies like Condorman, Escape from Witch Mountain, and Herbie the Love Bug. The completist in me, the part of my personality that still wants to get card number 483 from the 1984 Topps set for no good reason, wanted to watch all the movies in that panoply. Come to think of it, I’ve still never seen Witch Mountain. So, I guess that makes it the Fergie Jenkins of Disney movies.

                We also had trouble coming up with good Halloween movies to watch with the kids. I have a fairly libertine philosophy with my kids, but I stop short of watching true slasher movies with them. There are only a few family friendly movies about Halloween, and we’ve seen Nightmare Before Christmas approximately twelve thousand times. So, the idea of watching Hocus Pocus came to me. I remember going to see the movie back in 1993 at Springfield Mall, right under the giant die number 1. Picture the mall from season three of Stranger Things if you’re under the age of forty. My impressions of the movie were vague, but I would say positive. Then I started to see references to it all over the place. Merchandise at Target, posts on Facebook, etc. Why were people talking about this movie? For me, it was on the same cluster of brain cells that records my similarly happy but unclear memories of My Boyfriend’s Back, a zombie teen comedy that came out that same summer, and that I watched at the same theater. I would never revisit that movie.

                But the consensus out there seems to be that this one deserves a cult-type status, so we watched. Before I clicked on it, my wife and I had to weather a mutiny about watching Adventures in Babysitting instead. I don’t know why, but the kids fixated on it and needed to watch it. For some reason, Disney posts movies on Plus that aren’t available, somehow not understanding child psychology at all despite that being their bread and butter. I probably would have watched it. It holds a similar place in my memory to Hocus Pocus: a positive and vague impression, nearly certain to be debunked upon re-watching. Finally, we got over the revolt, and the movie was on.

                I tried to remember why I liked the movie. I was fifteen or so when I saw the movie. Suddenly I remembered having had a distinct crush on Sarah Jessica Parker in her early career. It’s hard to remember now, with the memories of her on Sex and the City much more prominent, but in Hocus Pocus, despite the crazy makeup and the spider-eating, I could see it. The girl who plays the love interest for Max was also striking. I had to squint to realize she wasn’t Hillary Swank (which I know is a whole debate in itself). That was probably a large part of my positive impression if I’m being honest.

The movie isn’t all that funny, though the kids enjoyed the physical comedy. One good thing; however, is that the parents are multi-dimensional. I think all the best teen movies have that element. Ferris Bueller’s dad gets some of the best lines in the movie. These parents are obtuse, but they seem like real people, which is better than many movies manage. Really though, the best part, the only thing that stands out, is the performances of all three Sanderson sisters. Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimi, and Bette Midler seem to be having the time of their lives hamming it up. They chew up the scenery with odd facial tics, hyperactivity, overwrought accents, and ADD throughout the movie. That alone is worth watching. It’s over the top in a good way.

Historically speaking, the movie was a flop. Probably in large part due to a weird decision to release a Halloween movie in the summer. This movie makes about 1 million dollars a year, every Halloween, because of how limited the holiday’s movie options are. I’m sure it would have done better if it had come out at the right time. The critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 34%, which seems about right to me. Roger Ebert said the only good thing about it was the musical number by Bette Midler in the high school dance sequence. Personally, I thought that was cringe-inducing, but whatever. The audience score is 71%. Again, that seems about right. Hocus Pocus is to Halloween cinema as Full House is to nineties sitcoms. Not good by any objective standard, deeply cheesy, yet oddly compelling in a way that is reminiscent to me of the siren song of the Hallmark movies my mother insists on watching.

As we finished the movie, we got a reminder of how much this film is lodged in the public hive mind. My wife leaned over and showed me where one of her Facebook friends had just posted, on January third mind you, nowhere near Halloween, a link talking about her love for Thackery Binx. That’s the name of the cat in Hocus Pocus. What in the double hell?

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