BootLeg Betty

BetteBack July 16, 1993: Bette Midler Was Meant To Play A Witch!

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Daily Herald Suburban Chicago
July 16, 1993

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Hmmm, let’s see what this recipe calls for: One singer-turned-actress who’s a few years past divine, mix in two cohorts, one fat and one fine, some makeup, three brooms and a pinch of old spells, some stunts, one song and a zombie who smells.

OH yes, now we’re cooking.

And top it all (and this is a fact) with a stammering plot and some kid:: who can’t act.

Ooops. This witches’ brew tastes a littie flat. Must have missed an ingredient or two — eye of newt, perhaps.

Disney’s “Hocus Pocus” would be better off starting from scratch. This batch was spoiled by the heavy hand of head chef/director Kenny Ortega, who came up through the feature film ranks as a choreographer.

Despite a fairly entertaining performance by the Divine Miss M herself, this kids-oriented comedy doesn’t manage to weave the spell it sets out to. The first half is a yawner that Ortega could have practically zapped with no harm done.

Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy star as witch sisters lynched by an angry mob in Salem, Mass., in 1693. The sisters, you see, sucked the life out of a young girl, and in the process turned her older brother into a cat doomed to endless lives. (Just the thing to get him through this entire movie.)

As they’re being hung, Winifred (Midler) casts a spell that promises to bring them back to life should the right circumstances conspire: the black flame in their witches den must be lit by a virgin on Halloween.

The town holds the legend near and dear.

Needless to say, 300 years later recent transfer student and doubting Thomas Max (Omri Katz) manages to reincarnate Midler as the bossy head witch, Parker as the dumb, boy-crazy blonde witch and Nijimy as the dumpy brown-nosing witch gifted with a great sniffer. She can smell children at 100 paces.

Which is key because the witches set out to cast a spell on the town’s children and suck the essence out of them, giving the hags eternal life and robbing the wee ones of theirs. But if dawn comes before the witches have had their fill — poof — dust. Forever!

It’s up to Max, Binx the cat, Max’s precocious young sister Dani (Thora Birch) and Allison (model Vinessa Shaw), for whom Max pines, to make sure the witches continue as nothing more than the town’s beloved legend.

It’s obvious where director Ortega’s strengths lie. The costumes are rich and beautiful. The sets are creepy but tongue-in-cheek (Parker’s character munches on spiders and Winifred’s beloved spell book’s roving eye is realistic) and the special effects are entertaining. (OK, there are no roaring dinosaurs, but some of the younger kids might be a tad frightened.)

Forget “The Rose” and “Ruthless People.” Midler was meant to play a witch as much as a boozy blues singer or spoiled heiress.

Thank God for one scene of Midler reworking the classic “I Put a Spell on You,” because it’s one of the best in the film, performed by the consummate singer and performer.

Midler does what she can with the limited role, particularly considering you can see the jokes coming a mile away.

When she tries out her zapping powers on Max after being brought back to life, she takes far too long to make the required comment “I haven’t lost my touch, sisters.”

Parker is wasted as the vixenish witch. Unlike her figure, most of her gags are flat. Nijimy just kind of limps along.

The story of the children is mechanical and boring. Max is a dweeb we’re supposed to cheer for in his quest to lure Allison (oh yeah, right), and Dani, while meant to be cute and bright, vacillates wildjy between being cloyingly sentimental and as grating as a black cat’s claws on a blackboard.

Allison is beautiful but bland.

“Hocus Pocus” should be one big gag machine, but opportunities are missed repeatedly. During trick-or-treating, the witches come out of a house to discover their brooms have been stolen and that’s as far as it goes. No kids takng the rides of their lives, bags of candy spilling to the ground.

Heck, some of the early trailers for the movie include some of the funniest footage, which evidently ended up on the cutting-room floor.

The foreshadowing is heavy handed, and the plot twists obvious The kids meet up with bad guy Billy, a smelly zombie whose mouth Winifred sewed shut after he slept with her sister As an ex-boyfriend, he is commanded to do her bidding, but can there be any doubt that he’ll eventually come to the kids’ rescue?

In one gratuitous scene, Garry and Penny Marshall appear as a Halloween night devil and his bored wife, to take the film off course.

Save the occasional clever joke (“We desire children,” says one witch to a leering bus driver “It might take me a couple of times, but I don’t think it’ll be problem,” he replies), adults will find the humor immature and base The running gag, for instance, is of Max’s
virginity and a crude reference to breasts.

When the gags do come, they’re often way out on a limb. The sisters joke about eating children and munching a shushkebaby, but there’s no indication that they’ll be actually devouring since it’s the children’s life force, not meat, they’re after.

Maybe Ortega should have taken a draw to the stuff before attempting to make this movie.

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