Directed by Kenny Ortega. Starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Omri Katz, Thora Birch, Vinessa Shaw. (1993, PG, 95 min.)
REVIEWED By Hollis Chacona, Fri., July 16, 1993
Chock-full of visual tricks and treats, Hocus Pocus is actually just what its title implies -- cinematic chimera without much substance. Replete with the close, shadowy textures of 17th-century Salem, the opening scenes are enchanting. It is here we first encounter the Sanderson sisters and learn of their dastardly plot to suck (well, inhale) the life-force from the young children of Salem, thus regaining their own lost youth. Their plan is thwarted by a valiant boy's effort to save his young sister. Though his rescue attempt fails, he delays the witches long enough to cause their capture and eventual hanging -- but not before they turn him into a cat that is cursed to live forever, and vow to meet up with him again one day. Unfortunately, that day is in 1993, and it is in this time transition that Hocus Pocus loses its magic. For modern-day Salem comes with all the trappings of the Nineties, movie-style, and that means plenty of cute, snappy wordplay (sexual innuendo), a plucky young heroine (precocious brat), a talking cat (why couldn't he talk in 1793?…), and a swaggering villain (hip-hop bully whose vocabulary consists of the words “duh” and “dude”). The Sanderson sisters do their best to keep things interesting. Midler (as the domineering Winifred) gives her considerable all to the role, and both Najimy (the child-sniffing Mary) and Parker (the ethereal nymphet, Sarah) are fun to watch. But the sets, costumes and choreography are the real stars of this show. The Sanderson house is a magnificently evocative piece of set design, combining the heavy timber architecture of early America with the Hansel-and-Gretel architecture of imagination. The costumer eschewed basic black and crafted gloriously rich and highly individual witches' garb. And the movement! Whether flying, cringing, or circling gleefully around the cauldron, the witches move and speak in mesmerizing, intricate, sisterly union. Unfortunately, sets, costumes and choreography do not a movie make. And for all its artful, high-flying sorcery, Hocus Pocus cannot escape the irons of an all too pedestrian plotline.