BetteBack Friday, July 16, 1993: `Hocus Pocus’ Filled With Zany Magic

Seattle Times
`Hocus Pocus‘ Filled With Zany Magic
Friday, July 16, 1993 – Page updated at 12:00 AM
By Jeff Shannon
Movie review


“Hocus Pocus,” with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Omri Katz, Thora Birch and Vinessa Shaw. Directed by Kenny Ortega, from a screenplay by Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert. Broadway Market, Kirkland Parkplace, Grand, SeaTac 12. “PG” – Parental guidance suggested because of some mature humor.

“It will either work or be a total bomb. I play a weird half-wit, a psychotic Lolita witch. She’s dumb – oh man, is she dumb.”

So confesses Sarah Jessica Parker about her role in “Hocus Pocus,” playing Sarah, the youngest of the Sanderson sisters, a trio of witches executed in Salem, Mass., in 1693.

Sporting beaver teeth and a blazing fright wig, Bette Midler plays lead sister Winifred, who frequently forgets the wording of her incantations, and Kathy Najimy (the plump nun in “Sister Act”) is Mary, who’s got a strong nose for sniffing out little children so she and her sisters can drain the life from them to preserve their fading beauty.

Parker assessed the film correctly. “Hocus Pocus” demands your willingness to buy into its rampant lunacy or write it off completely. If you go with its flow, the payoff in laughs can be considerable.

It’s a film that begs for director Tim Burton, but on the rebound from the drubbing of “Newsies,” Kenny Ortega has directed the summer’s best no-brainer. Silly without being stupid, and constantly flirting with the giddiness of brilliant improvisation, “Hocus Pocus” is easy to enjoy because everyone onscreen is obviously having a splendid time.

I lost all resistance when Midler broke into a campy rendition of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You,” with Parker and Najimy backing her as singing Witchettes.

By that time it’s Halloween night of 1993, and according to legend, if a virgin enters the Sandersons’ haunted house and lights the candle of black flame on Halloween, the witches will rise from the grave and resume harvesting children. The catch is, they’ve only got until dawn to do the job or they’ll turn into dust.

Max (Omri Katz) is the reckless virgin who lights the candle, and so with the help of his new girlfriend Allison (Vinessa Shaw) and kid sister Dani (the precociously funny Thora Birch), he grabs the witches’ spell book and sets out to foil their night of fright. Joining them is a talking cat named Binx (played by a real cat with wonderful computer-animated expressions), who is actually a boy from old Salem awaiting his release from Winifred’s 300-year-old spell.

But then, the details hardly matter. The fun of “Hocus Pocus” comes not from its carefree plot, but from the way Ortega, Midler & Co. have used it as a springboard for zaniness, without slowing the story.

Some will justifiably argue that the film lacks the purity of such similar Disney classics as “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” while co-opting the studio’s finest resources for astounding set design and special effects. And with Midler involved, the one-liners are occasionally less than innocent.

But “Hocus Pocus” remains a delightful family comedy, spooky but never scary as it romps its merry way through the graveyard. Here’s hoping it doesn’t bomb.

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