Wednesday, October 5, 2022

'Hocus Pocus 2' follows in Disney's bad habit of humanizing monsters

The sequel to the '90s Halloween cult film waters down its villains, but the producers forgot water is deadly to witches

It's hard to discern what kind of movie Hocus Pocus 2 wants to be. It's not, properly speaking, funny. Not particularly scary. Not as heartwarming as it wants to be. Not all that thrilling, especially in the third act. And even when it aims for the vibe of the first movie, that elusive blend of creepy and ridiculous, it's afraid of being too much of either.

The original Hocus Pocus is either a forgettable oddity or a perennial classic, depending on whom you ask. After a lifetime of perfecting the cinematic witch, Disney gave the world a curious variation: a trio of clumsy yet deadly, charming yet predatory, immensely powerful yet not very bright sisters who subverted the feminine archetype of the life-giver by choosing to be life-stealers. Their plan (to gain immortality by consuming children's souls) was no doubt evil, but their slapstick antics and their ignorance of modern life made their threat level wildly irregular, like an update of Macbeth's Weird Sisters by way of the Three Stooges.

As a 21st-century continuation of the story, Hocus Pocus 2 had several tasks to fulfill. Among the ones it succeeds at, it acknowledges that social attitudes toward witchcraft have shifted since the '90s. The witch is now a respectable symbol of female power, sought by a generation dissatisfied with patriarchal spirituality. At the same time, this cultural rebranding opens a market for commodification: the villains are dismayed to see that their old house, where they cooked their perverse potions, has become a theme park version of itself where magical herbs and crystals are sold over the counter. While the heroes in the first movie were effectively witch hunters, the heroines in the sequel are witches themselves. However, this redefinition of the witch role is not fully developed. The development of the heroines' powers competes for narrative focus with the evil sisters' plan to become almighty superwitches, which makes the pace feel bumpy. In theory, it should be possible to showcase both quests in a feature-length film, but since this plot can't make up its mind about which team should be the protagonists, it fails at making either of them compelling.

The opportunity to make commentary on today's womanhood is equally wasted. In the original movie, the witches' motivation for killing children was to remain young forever, a plot point that contains interesting questions about the image expectations imposed on women (and a disturbing subtext about the need to sacrifice motherhood to meet those expectations); in the sequel, they're taken to a modern drugstore full of cosmetic products. No meaningful statement on the underlying evils of ageism is made, and the scene is only used for cultural shock jokes. In more general terms, the movie's evident intention to deliver a feminist message is hindered by unexplainable storytelling choices. There are numerous ways to make a movie about female power; writing every single male character as a useless simpleton is not one of those ways.

Presumably, a witch that kidnaps children is a simple character to build a story around, but the ongoing fad of witch rehabilitation complicates the writer's job. In Hocus Pocus 2, the insertion of a prologue with unnecessary backstory for our villains is the main culprit. Disney has invented its own subtype of villain problem: it's terrified of plain badness. For some reason, Disney villains now need a traumatic past that justifies their later atrocities. That approach gave questionable results in Maleficent, definitely didn't work in Cruella, where Disney went for the ill-advised route of trying to spark empathy for a puppy flayer, and works even less in Hocus Pocus 2, where it hopes that the tragic backstory will humanize a family of child eaters. One can only fear for what Disney will do to the lion Scar in the upcoming prequel.

The ending of Hocus Pocus 2 aspires to make us sympathize with poor Winifred, whose only true wish is to stay close to her sisters. The tearful moment is meant to distract us from the fact that these are child eaters who should not be written as misunderstood outcasts. By inducing the painful whiplash of turning these characters from world-threatening monsters into relatable victims, Disney breaks the neck of the story before throwing its lifeless husk at us.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 5/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the flying Roomba, +1 for the other flying Roomba. I'm feeling unreasonably generous today.

Penalties: −1 for tonal inconsistency, −1 for lack of focus, −1 for a broken moral compass.

Nerd Coefficient: 4/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.