The joke is on screen critics from 1993, who lambasted Hocus Pocus and predicted it was doomed for obscurity. They were too busy being their usual fault-finding and cantankerous selves, they missed what would make it eternally bewitching. Senselessly looking at a youth movie through an adult lens, they made a bevy of irrational complaints and observations. For instance, some said it was "too silly;" there's no such thing as that with kids. Others would accuse it of being perverse, revealing their own warped mindsets. One reviewer supposed that the dainty way witch Sarah Sanderson (Sarah Jessica Parker) laid on her broomstick was sexually suggestive (I shook my head and rolled my eyes as I typed that sentence). Parker and the then teenage Vinessa Shaw (who portrayed Allison Watts) were the primary targets of venereal comments, but more on that problematic and unsettling aspect later. Assessments more grounded in logic deemed the film unorganized and conflicted for its contrasting comedic styles and character setups. Its variation enabled it to engage a wide audience though, which is the source of its longevity.
With Hocus Pocus' humor and concepts, many writers took issue with the macabre and mature surrounding lighter fare. Slapstick hijinks and G-rated giggles were alongside moderately sophisticated sarcasm, locker-room references to women's breasts and repeat mentions of virginity. A touching moral about cherishing and protecting your siblings (to the extent of self-sacrifice) is the B-plot to witches stealing children's souls to live forever. Within the first 30 minutes (or less) alone, one child is lured away with a spellbinding lullaby and murdered, another is turned into an immortal cat, and the witches are hung (with a promise to return of course). We see the nooses around their necks, and then a cut to their dangling feet. Nothing too serious, haha.
What seemed like terrible, irresponsible and chaotic storytelling to the critics was actually pretty strategic and intentional...and ultimately effective.
Oil of Boil, and a Dead Man's Toe (The Method to the Madness)
The Hocus Pocus crew explained the method to their madness in commemorative interviews with the Freeform channel last year. Writer and producer David Kirschner developed the plot with Mick Garris, seeking to break open the market for family movies in the adult-centric Halloween genre. 'House of Mouse' ideology was their compass. "Disney used to say you had to have darkness to have light. The film embraced that," soundtrack composer and long-time Disney collaborator John Debney detailed. Garris described his screenplay (co-authored by Neil Cuthbert) as "dark" and "scarier" than the end result. Moves to brighten and balance the work included making zombie Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones) "one you could date," instead of be frightened of. Choreographer and director Kenny Ortega was recruited to ensure the illuminations translated on tape. "It was a spooky comedy for sure, but it became much more fun than I had ever envisioned, and that's Kenny. He just brought a joy to it," Kirschner reminisced.
At the time, Disney had just mild reason to have faith in Ortega. While he had choreographed blockbusters like Dirty Dancing (1987) and Pretty in Pink (1986), he’d been behind the camera only once. It was for the company’s Newsboys Strike musical, Newsies (1992). It bombed at the box office and was panned by movie journalists, but like Hocus Pocus, it cropped up a cult following. Its popularity swelled into a Tony award-winning Broadway adaptation in 2012. Ortega would go on to steer many successful projects for the conglomerate, including the Cheetah Girls, High School Musical and Descendants trilogies. Outside of their net, he’d be enlisted to bring his vision to the concert tours of Cher, Gloria Estefan, Miley Cyrus and the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. The Mickey Machine couldn’t predict the future, but they had enough foresight to keep Ortega around. They could probably tell that he truly understood their formula of counterbalancing darkness and light, and fancifulness and pragmatism.
Not shying away from conflict, Ortega’s films typically deal with issues in identity, ambition and interpersonal relationships. This makes them relatable, endearing and highly sentimental. ‘Happy endings’ are the result of growth, awareness and courage (as opposed to absurdly convenient and beneficial outcomes where the lead character isn’t challenged). Combine that with his signature 'larger than life' and starry-eyed sense of wonder, and you’ve got something that’s both entertaining and uplifting. You’re bound to leave inspired, or at least with a soaring heart. The Kenny Ortega approach is inherently and definitively Disney. Of his first directing gig, Ortega recalled: “I believed in it (i.e. Hocus Pocus). I believed we could do a family Halloween story and laugh at the good humor, and that’s what we did.”
Amuck, Amuck, Amuck (The Diverse Humor)
For parents, taking their offspring to the cinema can be more pain than pleasure. There’s the preparation, and the looming possibility that their kiddo will misbehave. Liking the movie is far from a concern, but it would be a plus if that happened. The aforementioned mixed jocularity of Hocus Pocus opened the door for that, because there was material on their level. Their tykes would get a kick out of the goofy physical comedy, while they could chuckle at the witches’ misinterpretations of modern inventions (ex. Thinking a wet road was a lethal “black river” and worshipping a costumed man, thinking he’s the real Satan). These were jests that their children wouldn’t comprehend until they were older, allowing families to enjoy the film together for years to come.
My appreciation and adoration for Hocus Pocus deepened, as I grew up and could recognize just how pawky and multifaceted it is. Its dynamism is effortless, skillful and effectual. The same goes for its grim blagues, which are never easy to do.
But Who Lit The Black Flame Candle? (The Well-Rounded Characters)
On paper, you know who you’re supposed to root for and be drawn to in Hocus Pocus. The innocent youngsters are to best the evil sorceresses. Munchkins would expectedly pay attention to 8-year-old Dani (Thora Birch). Adolescents would be aching to find out if Max and Allison were going to be a thing (is their ‘smush’ name Mallison or Allisax?). Adults probably hoped the star power of Midler, Parker and Najimy would salvage a film they were forced to see. However, each character was so roundly appealing, you don’t want to pick a side. When the witches spontaneously combust into dust at the conclusion, you’re sad to see them go. Reviewers thought this design was bungled and confusticated, but again, it proved to be a strength.
To help the witches be accessible to children, they were given quirky attributes. Winnie’s bright red-orange hair looked like matted Mickey ears. She had Betty Boop-esque lipstick, buck teeth, and spoke with a vainglorious, knock-off English accent. Mary’s mop resembled an ice cream swirl, her mouth seemed fixed in a slant, and she’d sometimes growl and bark like a dog. Her voice was slow, muffled and goony. Together, they’d grunt as they walked. Sarah stood out, having a comely appearance, instead of an offbeat one. Her speech was breathy, and she behaved kittenishly. These features could neutrally multitask between audience groups. She’d attract kids, reading to them as coltish and ditzy. Adults would view her as a seductive sexpot, and note her abundant cleavage. Her affect on people was similar within the story. Sarah’s soothing singing is how the Sandersons hypnotized children. Victims who were men were collateral damage or for sport (like my man Billy, haha).
Grownups would observe this parallel as well. They’d see past the enchantresses’ barminess, and perceive how deliciously diabolical they were underneath. Sarah was a rose with a hidden thorn. Mary seemed cute and cuddly, but had the gruesome power to smell children for feasting. Winnie was a very capable necromancer, and unapologetically icy and vengeful. She’d exhibit these traits in such a scintillating and witty way, that it was fetching. Her spiteful sallies are rib-tickling. I especially love her antagonizations toward Thackery Binx (Jason Marsden), the poor chap she warped into a deathless feline. When the 16th century townspeople inquire about him, she loftily says “I don’t know [where he is]. Cat’s got my tongue.” Upon seeing him in the present day, she cracks “Thackery Binx; still alive?...thou will fail to save thy friends (i.e. Max and co.), just as thou failed to save thy sister!” His sibling Emily was the child who was murdered in the beginning. Winnie was so petty and wrong for rubbing all that in his face...or should I say “fur?” Haha.
Max is a textbook whippersnapper, who’s perturbed his handsomeness isn’t getting him further in his family’s new locale of Salem (the Dennisons are from California). He turns his nose up at the city’s mystic culture, but questions why he doesn’t have any friends. His arrogance is so adamantine, he’s convinced his smugness woos Allison. He gives her his phone number in front of their whole class. He has cringe-worthy fantasies about her, and crassly labels female anatomy. He’s pouty, has an irksome attitude, and is unnecessarily mean to Dani. His rashness keeps his clique in trouble, and he can’t come up with viable solutions because he’s a moron. The most noble thing he does is drink a witch’s brew to spare Dani’s life. Considering this, how is Max still convivial? For one, you sympathize with him because he’s stupidly picked on for being a virgin. Also, because he’s jumped by ‘bad boys’ Ernie (I’m sorry, Ice, haha) and Jay (Larry Bagby and Tobias Jelinek, respectively), and they steal his sneakers. For two, he’s familiar. Whether it’s bullying, not fitting in, crushing on someone, being a doofus, or being exhausted by a sibling, some part of Max registers with you. If nothing else, you can be entertained by his foolishness.
The role of Allison was thankless. Reviewers were determined to minimize her. They either mentioned her in passing, merely as Max’s girlfriend (which she was not), or they sexually objectified her. Not that the following was acceptable, but superficial remarks about Sarah were a given. She was fashioned to be enticing. More importantly, Parker was an adult. It was skin-crawling reading article after article focusing on Shaw/Allison’s aesthetic, using adjectives like “buxom” and “voluptuous.” Grown men were noticing and commenting on the body of a teenage girl. Once a female hits puberty, she’s a sexual commodity. Allison was so much more than “Max’s beautiful love interest.”
Allison was intuitive, intelligent, knowledgeable and level headed. She senses that Max may have some positive qualities, but she doesn’t naively ignore his bravado. She makes him think she’s handing him her number, when really, it’s the same paper he gave her. He needed that humbling experience. Later, he throws a temper tantrum when his plans to stop the witches falters. He commands her to take Dani to their house and watch her. I always think “Where does he get off yelling at her? Whatcha' gonna' do solo anyway, big, bad Max?? He thinks he’s all that.” Allison keeps her cool, tells Max to calm down, and curates a stratagem to kill the witches. Second to the guidance of Binx, Allison is the brains behind the operation. She uses her erudition of the Sandersons and her gut feelings to steadily protect her pals, and outsmart the dangerous trio. It’s her idea to lock them in a sculpting oven and try to melt them. It’s her that detects something’s amiss after, and opts to grab salt as a precaution. She’s the one whose attentiveness leads to the revelation that the sisters were fighting time. The daylight-savings ruse was her maneuver. The single unwise thing she did was open the spellbook, when Binx explicitly told her not to. Even then, her actions were based in rationality. She assumed the book was harmless if the witches were dead.
Dani was the only one movie evaluators were spot on about: she was irresistibly charming and precocious. Most ‘little sister’ bits are one dimensional. They’re either fragile, sugary and oblivious, or obnoxiously bratty smart-alecks. Dani was Hannah Montana before Hannah Montana existed: she was the best of both worlds. Trying to conceal or ‘dumb down’ anything for her was insulting, because she’s extremely perspicacious. Her surveys of Max are so shrewd, you forget who’s the older Dennison (I love how she calls him out for being a coward and a predictable adolescent). You can forget she’s a child altogether, as she has the mordacity of a lounge comedian, haha. Reminders are in her adorable attachment to Binx, as well as her desperation to have the affection and friendship of her brother. Admirably assertive and plucky, Dani makes you want to be braver than you are. One could say it’s because she’s young and doesn’t know any better, but her personality markers are too strong for that to be true. It’s just how she is. The scene to most encompass her nature is early in Hocus Pocus. The Sandersons discover her in their home, and plan to have her for dinner. Dani doesn’t waste a moment on fear. She brilliantly bargains and works the room, pretending to be a fellow witch who brought them back. They don’t fall for it, but she’s still unruffled. When stuff hits the fan, she doesn’t think twice about striking Winnie with her Halloween bag to save Max.
Hocus Pocus is quietly feministic. Its headlining actors are all women. There’s only one male lead (i.e. Max), and he’s an imbecile. The rest are ‘tough cookies,’ who are more or less galvanizing. There’s not much overt dialogue that underlines this, but one locus in particular stands in my memory. Winnie’s eager to kill Dani specifically because she called Winnie ugly. Jay describes the Sandersons as “ugly chicks,” but just latter term offends Winnie. “Chicks?,” she crossly asks. Jay got himself (and Ernie by association) locked up in a cage for that. It was 20th century lingo, but Winnie knew what was up.
Dawn Approaches (Bringing It All Together for a Lasting Legacy)
In 8/10 cases, films in the “family” section aren’t really for the whole gang. Their structure, look and feel commonly cater to the interests of elementary and middle-schoolers. Teens deem them too juvenile to connect to, and parents just grin and bear through them. Hocus Pocus lived up to its categorization, inviting the entire household to the party. Every aspect of it was built with variegation to suit different tastes. Ageism and ‘either/or’ story models were avoided. The rigid lines that are usually drawn between opposites (ex. Hero and villain, weighty and wacky) were blurred. This made it a unique piece of cinema, and seamlessly multi-generational and transitional. You can shift from laughing at Sarah’s loopiness, to Winnie’s snide one-liners. You can jump from #TeamKids to #TeamSanderson. You never have to let go of Hocus Pocus, or be pressured to do so. You won’t be told you’re “too big” or “too old” for it (unlike your dolls, piercings, or in my experience, music posters).
By and large, pictures are praised for stepping out of the box, but critics slammed Hocus Pocus for not sticking to the status quo (shout out to Kenny Ortega and the Wildcats). In their eyes, it erred in not having a solitary identity. Audiences have said otherwise; its weird miscellany was its ticket to decades-long intrigue. A writer stated that everyone to do with making Hocus Pocus was “mad.” To quote Alice in Wonderland, another Disney film, “All the best people are.”
Just a Bunch of Hocus Pocus (Questions & Other Randomry)
1-Winnie mistakes a high school as a “prison for children.” For the last 26 years of my life, I have said “I know that’s a joke, but it’s soooo true!” after that line, haha. How did Allison, Max and Dani know that the witches would come there?
2-In scoffing at the Halloween holiday, Max tells Allison to call him if Jimi Hendrix shows up. As a kid, I thought Jimi was the guy who told Max he had a “fat chance” with Allison, and he wanted to fight the dude.
3-When Dani pushes Max to stand up against the school bullies harassing them, he scolds her after: “You just humiliated me in front of half the guys at school!” It was about six guys, and it’s not like he was trying to get in good with them. Max is so dramatic. *rolls eyes*
4-Jay and Ernie’s friend with the blue hoodie and snow hat was cute to me in the day (see inset), haha.
5-Why was Binx’s name Thackery and not Zachary, like I’ve thought my whole life? What kind of a name is that anyway? I refuse to call him that, and didn’t want to in this article, haha. Why should anything change after two decades? I might as well find out I have a different name. *Knocks on wood* When Shaw pronounced his name with a “Th” sound, I just figured she had a lisp, haha.
7-Binx’s friend Elijah was trash. He declared Emily “done for” on sight, and took his precious time getting help to save her.
8-Speaking of Emily, how is it that she was the only child summoned by Sarah’s singing in the village? Later, the whole city is following her voice, while Max and Allison are unaffected. Can Sarah pick and choose her prey? I was so obsessed with “Come, Little Children,” I used it as part of a poetry assignment in high school.
9-Billy’s headstone says he died in May 1693. Binx wasn’t hexed into a cat until October 1693, so how did he know what happened to Billy? He decided to become a historian in his eternal life? Haha.
10-How was Billy the single corpse to rise from Winnie’s spell? We all know that graveyard was full of Sanderson victims, haha. Also, if Billy hated Winnie, why did he do her bidding and go after the Dennisons?
11-Allison freaks out when she wakes up at Max’s and realizes she’s way past her curfew. It was late when you went to sleep, sis.
12-Binx tried only once to prevent Max from lighting the Black Flame Candle. I think he wanted the witches to come back so he could have his shot at revenge, haha.
13-How exactly did the Sandersons get Jay and Ernie from the middle of the suburbs, to their cottage and into cages?
14-Winnie zapped Max at the beginning of the movie. Couldn’t she have done that again to get her spellbook? I know, I know...no movie if she had done that, haha.
15-Did I mention that Max is kind of awful? In an offhand tone, he says to Binx, “You really miss her (i.e. Emily) don’t you? Man, you can’t keep blaming yourself for that (her death); that happened so long ago.” Yeah, he watched his sister die and has been trapped in a cat’s body ever since, but because it happened three centuries ago, he should be good now. You’re right, Max.
16-Anyone notice how the Dennisons have a painting of their Salem house on the wall?
18-The Sanderson sisters have an understandably hard time with present-day items throughout the movie. However, they taunt Max by threatening to apprehend him for resisting arrest and not having his driver’s permit. Maybe they knew a slang spell?
19-Binx waits till Max throws down the spellbook, flicks his lighter, and tries to torch it before warning that the book is protected by magic. Guess he just wanted an opportunity to show his knowledge?
20-Dani did some waiting of her own. Max gets electro-shocked by Winnie for an extra 10 seconds (roughly) because she paused to yell, “You leave my brother alone!” He mistreated her, so he deserved it. Cracks me up.
21-Whose epic idea was it to have the Marshall siblings do a cameo? Was it Kenny’s? Having the late, great Garry and Penny Marshall play spouses was odd to some, but I’d take them portraying twin turtles. I’d take them in any form.
22-Max spilled Winnie’s soul-sucking potion, but she saved enough for one child. A throng of tranced kids are at her door, and Jay and Ernie are caged up, but she’s determined to use it on Dani. She could’ve made her sunrise deadline and lived forever, but noooo...she wasted time pursuing Dani instead. *Facepalms*
23-Why was Winnie the only Sanderson to turn to stone before bursting into dust at the end?
24-Hocus Pocus, a Halloween film, was released in the U.S. in July 1993. Allegedly, this was to keep it from competing with The Nightmare Before Christmas. Not sure how dropping it out of season would improve its chances of commercial success, but it eventually did okay anyway. Look at that.
Happy Halloween everyone! And please, for the love of cursed black cats, don't light any black flame candles. ;)