When I was 9 years old, I saw a Don Knotts horror-comedy called The Ghost and Mr. Chicken that gave me the heebie-jeebies for months afterward. I watched it again recently, and of course it was just a piece of corny slapstick trash. That’s roughly how Disney’s new Hocus Pocus works: It’s acceptable scary-silly kid fodder that adults will find only mildly insulting. Unless they’re Bette Midler fans. In which case it’s depressing as hell.
Publicly bitter over the failure of her labor of love For The Boys, Midler seems to have offered herself up to the Disney genre wizards who revived her movie career in the early ’80s. That can be the only explanation for her taking the role of Winifred, the leader of three witchy sisters (the others are Sister Act’s Kathy Najimy and Honeymoon in Vegas’ Sarah Jessica Parker) who return from the grave to threaten the children of Salem, Mass., on Halloween night. A tight script might have put it over, but the actresses seem to have been instructed by director Kenny Ortega (Newsies) to wing it Three Stooges style.
What’s really frightening is that they’re the best part about Hocus Pocus. The story follows a teenage boy (Omri Katz), his little sister (Thora Birch), and his high school crush (Vinessa Shaw) as the three try to vanquish the sorceresses with the aid of an enchanted black cat. The two older kids come off as pallid Anyteens, though, and Birch is such a pill that one screening audience burst into applause when Winifred threatened to kill her off. Najimy and Parker have their moments of ramshackle comic inspiration, and the passable special effects should keep younger campers transfixed. But the sight of the Divine Miss M. mugging her way through a cheesy supernatural kiddie comedy is, to say the least, dispiriting. C-