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‘Hocus Pocus’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 16, 1993


Kenny Ortega
Bette Midler;
Sarah Jessica Parker;
Kathy Najimy;
Omri Katz;
Thora Birch;
Vinessa Shaw;
Amanda Shepherd
Parental guidance suggested

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"Hocus Pocus" isn't exactly a kid's movie -- or an adult's either, for that matter. This spotty witchcraft caper from Disney is, however, less likely to scare the Pull-Ups off toddlers than such seemingly kid-friendly fare as "Snow White." And when it comes to developing distaff psyches, "Hocus Pocus" may be hag-ridden, but at least the female characters are riding their brooms instead of sweeping up after dwarves.

Disney continues its long relationship with witches through a trio of 17th-century sorceresses. They are far from role models, mind you, but they are possessed of spunk and spirit though dead these 300 years. How could it be otherwise with Bette Midler camping it up as queen of the coven?

Enchanting in beaver teeth and a hairdo from Hell, Midler plays the eldest of the Sanderson Sisters -- all of whom are hanged in the movie's prologue for sucking the life force out of a pretty little colonial. (It combats aging.) The child's brother, whom they turn into a talking cat -- a black shorthair named Binx -- for all eternity, has been guarding the old Sanderson house ever since.

Binx (Sean Murray meowing behind computer-generated lips) tries but fails to stop a 20th-century teenage virgin -- much is made of this unnatural state -- named Max (Omri Katz) from conjuring up the three toil-and-troublemakers on Halloween Night in Salem. A nonbeliever newly arrived from L.A., Max is flouting local taboos to impress a pretty classmate, Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and his plucky kid sister, Dani (Thora Birch). Lucky thing, too, because without Bette and her cohorts -- Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy -- the movie falls in on itself like a rotten jack-o'-lantern.

What follows is a series of chases through the cemeteries and trick-or-treater-clogged streets of the quaint New England village. To remain in Salem for eternity, the gals must reclaim their book of potions, concoct a magical brew of dead men's toes and witch spit, and summon a small child -- they want Dani -- and absorb her youthful juices, leaving her a pint-sized granny. The fun never stops around this caldron.

For the kids it's nip and tuck, though they do get an assist from an old ghoulfriend of the sisters' and that darn Binx. At one point the faithful feline is run over by a school bus, to Dani's dismay, but cursed with immortality, the squashed beast reinflates like a birthday balloon before her teary eyes. And you think your cat knows some tricks.

There's even a production number, with Bette belting "I'm Gonna Put a Spell on You." Only she doesn't, quite. But it's not up to her. The movie needs a little more focus and a lot less pocus.

Except for the 11-year-old Birch, a precocious scene-stealer with a smidgen of Midlerian sass, the kids can't disguise the essential mediocrity of the material. Midler and Najimy (a singing nun in "Sister Act") know from broom shtick, and their antics are aided by some electrifying special effects. Parker, who plays a boy-crazy crone with the brains of a newt, is politically incorrect, but what are you going to do?

"Hocus Pocus" is really two movies -- a sophomoric caper for teenage boys and a dark lark for fans of Disney farce, an abracadabra "Sister Act." Both of them are failures. Kenny Ortega, the choreographer of "Dirty Dancing" who turned director with "Newsies," doesn't dawdle over the material, but he doesn't manage to unify it either. That would take Rosemary's Baby himself.

"Hocus Pocus" is rated PG and is mildly suggestive and slightly scary.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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