Films, TV, and Theatre

Hocus Pocus (1993)

Supernatural comedy starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy as a trio of 17th-century witches accidentally brought back to life in modern-day America.

Stars: Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimy, Omri Katz, Vinessa Shaw
Director: Kenny Ortega

TV Guide

Forget amusement parks and hockey teams. It's in movie comedies that Disney is having its real crisis, as evidenced by this would-be laugh-getter that begins with the murder of a child and a triple hanging.

In 1693 Salem, Massachusetts, three witch-sisters--Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Mary (Kathy Najimy)--are hanged after killing a little girl to prolong their own lives and turning her brother into Binx, a talking black cat doomed to live for eternity. Cut to Halloween, 1993. Newly moved with his family from LA, teenager Max (Omri Katz) is having trouble adjusting. He gets shouted down in class, flirted with and then ignored by sexy classmate Allison (Vinessa Shaw). His offense in class was snorting at the tale of the three local legendary witches. Allison worked at the witches' house, which had been preserved and turned into a museum, now closed.

Max gets beaten up by local bullies and then browbeaten into taking his bratty sister Dani (Thora Birch) trick-or-treating. When they stumble into Allison's house, she's warmer to Max and takes him up on a challenge to prove the truth of the witch story by breaking into their house. There, Max tempts fate by lighting a black-flame candle that brings the witches to life for Halloween night only, unless they can find new youngsters to kill, with Dani the leading candidate. Helped by Binx, who has lived at the house since the spell was cast, they thwart the witches and watch them turn to dust with dawn's first light.

HOCUS POCUS on paper would seem to have everything going for it, with three top screen comediennes in the leading roles, a potentially interesting idea for a film in which to star them, and eye-catching, ingenious special effects. Producer David Kirschner has a special knack in the latter area. His major credits include the CHILD'S PLAY series and AN AMERICAN TAIL. His key critter creation here is Binx, who is so seamlessly and fluidly executed that it's virtually impossible to tell where the real cat leaves off and the special effects take over. However, it's indicative of the film's problems that he never has much of a part to play.

Under direction that can only be described as scatterbrained by choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega (NEWSIES), HOCUS POCUS runs off in so many directions at once that it keeps tripping over itself behind a plot that doesn't make the slightest bit of sense. Binx is trapped under a spell cast by the dead witches that can only be broken by bringing the witches back to life and killing them again. Before you can say, "Run that by me again?", Binx is forgotten, and the film is dashing off into another nonsensical direction. The witches, having been brought back to life, cast a spell over all the children of Salem so they can kill them for revenge. Having done that, however, they then spend the film's last half hour risking everything to get Dani, as if she were the only child in Salem. Add the fatally mixed moods--how funny can child-killers be, even if they are played by three of the screen's top comediennes?--and the only possible result is certain failure. Or HOCUS POCUS, which even uncredited cameos by director-siblings Garry and Penny Marshall, cleverly cast as husband and wife, can't save. Parker comes close to making the film watchable with the role of the simplest sister, an airhead to end all airheads with a body built for evil and the attention span of a Pekingese. Put her and the talking cat together, and you might have a pretty good film. (Adult situations, violence.) Tom Hinckley

Brian Lowry, Variety

With Bette Midler and her onscreen sisters shamelessly hamming things up, it looks as if those involved in making this inoffensive flight of fantasy had more fun than anyone over 12 will have watching it. Still, the blend of witchcraft and comedy should divert kids without driving the patience of their parents to the boiling point, leaving a chance to conjure up a little box office magic among that contingent before the pot tips over. Actually, without a heavily madeup Midler at its center (and perhaps the hot-off-"Honeymoon in Vegas" Sarah Jessica Parker) "Hocus Pocus" wouldn't seem out of place on the Disney Channel and perhaps belongs there. As is, even with souped-up special effects, the premise feels a bit wispy to sustain a feature, and the action sags at times as a result.

That tried-and-true storyline has a teenage boy (Omri Katz) feeling out of place having moved to a new town -- in this case venerable Salem, Mass. -- with his parents and kid sister. Stuck with taking moppet Dani (Thora Birch, one of the pic's major assets) trick-or-treating on Halloween night, he meets up with his dream-girl classmate (Vinessa Shaw) and ends up traveling to a musty old museum where, inadvertently, he conjures up three children-hungry witches from the dead.

They are, in fact, the Sanderson sisters: the cruel Winifred (Midler), the daft Mary (Kathy Najimy of "Sister Act") and the positively dense, boy-crazy Sarah (Parker).

According to Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert's script, from a story by Garris and producer David Kirschner, the trio must suck the lifeforce out of children by dawn or risk being scattered forever.

"Hocus Pocus" suffers from inconsistency, careening around somewhat aimlessly between the coven being menacing to the kids or a comedic sort of Three Stooges on broomsticks.

Choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega, whose own last flight was on the ill-fated Disney musical "Newsies," can't quite pull off this tap dance either, even with the ripe comedic possibilities from the fact that on Halloween night no one takes these real-life witches seriously.

There are a few inspired moments from the witches, but for the most part the movie belongs to the kids, with Katz appropriately earnest as Max, Birch cute and wisecracking as the sister and Shaw spunky and well-cast as the quintessential dream girl.

Tech credits are modest yet solid, with creditable visuals from Buena Vista Visual Effects, some nifty costuming and a sharp look from cinematographer Hiro Narita.

Unfortunately, like the zombie revived by Winifred, the film keeps losing its head, particularly during the final sequence, when it's hard to ascertain exactly what the heroes are hoping to accomplish. For all its "E.T."-type flourishes -- from John Debney's score to one particular line of dialogue at the end -- these broomsticks won't give anyone that sort of lift.

Sky Movies

Burnt at the stake by most critics, this jolly and juicy slice of witchery-pokery proves less than half as black as its reputation. Its cauldron bubbles with funny lines and sensationally good special effects and - eye of newt! - it has Bette Midler looking like a Spitting Image puppet of herself as the leader of a trio of Connecticut witches who return from the dead 300 years on, thanks to stupid teenager Max lighting the black candle at the museum that was once their home. If they can breathe in enough souls of children, the witches will live forever. Attempting to see that the tartar-tongued trio come to a bad end instead are Max (Omri Katz), his girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw) and kid sister (Thora Birch), a vengeful 300-year-old cat and a zombie. The latter, resuscitated by Midler, changes sides despite her exhortation to 'Follow those children, you maggot museum'. The ending goes too far into sentiment, but Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy are right on the mark as the other witches: highlight of the action is their acting as raddled Ronettes to Bette's singing sorceress when the trio invade the local hop.