It’s been twenty-six years since the public was first introduced to the Sanderson Sisters. Surprisingly, Hocus Pocus wasn’t a runaway hit when it was first released in the summer of 1993, (the same year Jurassic Park took a dino-sized bite out of all competitors). But if annual airings on the Disney Channel, a cast reunion, and even a recent sequel novel have taught us anything, the hunger for this magical property is anything but hocus pocus.
A remake was recently announced with The Royals scribe Scarlett Lacey attached as writer, a move publicly derided by Winifred Sanderson herself, Bette Midler. Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker, Thora Birch, and the “man of many monsters” Doug Jones have all expressed interest in coming back for a proper sequel. So let’s put on our pointy black hats, imagine ourselves opposite a room of Disney execs, and ask the question, “How would you recapture that old black magic for Hocus Pocus 2”?
Let’s start with the title. Something with attitude. Something to put a spell on you. I’d go with Hocus Pocus 2: Witch, Please. Now let’s talk about the proper forum for the film. The remake will apparently air on the Freeform channel, a venue more focused on youth than nostalgia. Witch, Please deserves something more edgy, showier, (we all know Winnie, Mary, and Sarah Sanderson love to vamp). But it shouldn’t be another theatrical release. We the fans love to have these characters at our fingertips, in our homes. The DVD sales of the original raked in more than $1 million each October for years. We want to “dance until we die” with these witches, especially on Halloween night. So how about the new kid on the block, Disney Plus?
Now what would the plot be? The recent YA tie-in novel Hocus Pocus and the All-New Sequel by A.W. Jantha focused on Max and Allison’s daughter, Poppy. Her parents tell Poppy all about what happened to them on that fateful night, and Poppy has to ultimately face the Sanderson Sisters to save her parents. Not a bad basic template, even if it sounds like a rote Goosebumps episode. But where is Thora Birch’s Dani Dennison in all this? Isn’t she the hero whose story is still left to be told? Max and Allison had their happy ending, (I mean clearly Max’s virginal black-candle-lighting days are long gone… one would hope). I say, Witch, Please needs just that, a new witch.
Dani has now taken up the craft, a Millennial sorceress. She is a white witch, a Wiccan, a do-gooder in the occult goings-on in Salem. Unfortunately, this does mean Dani barely has time for her precocious niece Poppy, a girl who just wants to know all about those mysterious potions her aunt makes. Dani won’t open up to Poppy, (her big brother Max forbids it). Poppy thinks she’ll find her answers in a weird book her Aunt Dani keeps locked away in the attic, a book with one blinking eye. Instead, Poppy conjures up the Sanderson Sisters. And also a cosmic horror much, much worse.
Now we have our setup, but what would it all really be about? Here in lies the brilliance of the Hocus Pocus franchise, the real reason it became a cult classic. As much as the film has humor, it also has a good heart. In his non-fiction book Hocus Pocus in Focus: The Thinking Fan’s Guide to Disney’s Halloween Classic, Aaron Wallace analyzes it’s major themes, such as festivity, home, sibling rivalry, Broadway-style musical conventions, nostalgia, and feminism. Yes, the film has legit lent itself to scholarly inquiry. And every piece of storytelling requires thematic growth.
So in the grand tradition of sequels, (X2: X-Men United, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, uh…Godzilla), let the Sanderson Sisters redeem themselves. At least, to a certain degree. Perhaps this new cosmic horror, (a world destroyer, naturally), poses a common threat to both the supernatural and the terrestrial world. The Sanderson Sisters are forced to team-up with their onetime foe Dani and her niece Poppy against a mutual enemy, a Goblin King or a Rat-Faced Demon constantly mansplaining or something. The sisters’ journey from children-eaters to witches of light would be multilayered, marked by triumphs and pitfalls, awkward situations, and of course humor.
Yes, let’s talk about the humor. The gags in the original Hocus Pocus remain, for the most part, very funny. Almost all of that can be chalked up to the magnificent chemistry of the three leads. Let’s be honest, if it hadn’t been Kathy Najimy hot off of Sister Act, the hungry talent of a Sarah Jessica Parker mere moments away from television glory in Sex and the City, and the genius of Bette Midler at the zenith of her queenliness, we wouldn’t still be talking about this film. A lot of the comedy with the kids Max, Allison, Dani, and their magical cat Binx can quite generously be qualified as, well, “dad jokes”. That’s not to say some of it doesn’t still elicit a chuckle, (the bit with the fake motorcycle cop is genuinely clever), but through the lens of adult eyes it can come off a bit milquetoast.
But that only makes sense. Hocus Pocus was always meant to be a family affair. Producer David Kirschner came up with the idea for the story with his young daughter, while watching the neighbor’s black cat. They wondered what would happen if that cat were really a boy, transformed three hundred years ago by three witches. It’s a cozy cottage kind of fable, almost like a lullaby, like Harry Potter might’ve been if Voldemort had any sense of style. Non-threatening, except for the baddies. They get to have all the fun. Especially that nasty Winnie, with her bravura quaffed hair and pop culture (nineties) references, the love child of Aladdin’s genie and Ursula the Sea Witch.
Hocus Pocus is now a series made by its nostalgia. There’s nothing wrong with that, although it can be a slippery slope. For every Halloween (2018) there is a Ghostbusters (2016). Nostalgia holds such a pure place in our hearts that the very whiff of cynicism instantly ignites our cancel-culture hashtags. That flaw may indeed lie not in our stars but in ourselves, but either way it’s a very real thing. But I think there is a verisimilitude we can create for Witch, Please, by using nostalgia as a running joke.
Remember that line Max has in the original? “We’re talking about three ancient hags versus the 20th Century, how bad could it be?” Well, in this sequel, it’s even worse. Now we’re talking about three ancient hags… inadvertently turned into Nineties Gen-Xers… versus the 21st Century, (Witch, Please. More like Woke, Please). Can you imagine the Sanderson Sisters trying to fit in now? I’d love to see Dani make them go undercover, maybe as teachers in the old Salem high school. Winnie, Mary, and Sarah think they’ve got it covered. After all, they remember the word “dude”, and skateboards, and Air Jordans. But wait until they crash headlong into tweets, and selfies, and the Dark Lord Kanye West. Honestly, it would all be worth it if Winnie ironically becomes the ceramics teacher. Her and that kiln must meet again!
When the evil is finally defeated, do the Sanderson Sisters stay on the straight and narrow? Or do they fall back into their youngster-noshing ways? Maybe Winnie returns to wickedness, (her ego would allow nothing else), but her sisters finally stand up to her. Maybe the youngest sister Sarah finally finds happiness with Doug Jones’ Billy Butcherson. Maybe Billy finally solves his heedlessness issues, something I’m sure a good therapist and a blue pill can help him with. Whatever the ending, you can be assured it will be a happy one. The Mouse House demands nothing less.
And what about the look of the film? Once again, go old school. That vintage Disney aesthetic is half the fun, and far richer than the CGI blahs we’ve gotten in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and the live-action remake of Cinderella. So there you have it. I’ve cracked the nut, dear Disney execs. Get the entire cast back, (Bette, Kathy, Sarah Jessica, Goofy’s son, the works). Use the retro special effects from the original, (wire work on the brooms, hand drawn lightning, reverse photography, practical monster makeup, etc.).
Have the Sanderson Sisters try to blend into the modern day, but their only point of reference is 1993, (Stranger Things-style Nostalgia Box checked off). Make it for a few bucks and get it onto Disney Plus next October. Ka-Ching! Also, throw in the odd cameo or two. But who could possibly equal the late-greats Garry and Penny Marshall from the original? I dunno, John Waters? I hear he’s a cheap date.