More than 300 years ago, 3 witches were sentenced to die in Salem, Massachusetts and a boy was turned into a cat (a black cat, naturally). Now it's Halloween, and the witches (who fly on [I kid you not] vacuum cleaners) are back. This time, they've got their eyes on immortal life and have turned their wrath on trick-or-treaters and it's up to the 300-year-old cat to save the day.
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Kenny Ortega’s family comedy “Hocus Pocus” is one of those movies that, while overlooked, has real nostalgic value. While a box office disappointment when it was released, for people who grew up watching it, it is very fondly remembered. Looking back on “Hocus Pocus,” it is one of the darkest films in Disney history, but also one of the funniest. Beyond that, it actually touches on some deeply moral issues.
Our story begins three hundred years ago in Salem, where teenager Thackery Binx is horrified to learn that his little sister Emily has been captured by witches. These three hags, the Sanderson Sisters, intend to rejuvenate themselves by drawing on the life force of young Emily. Thackery is too late to save his sister, and the revitalized witches turn him into an immortal black cat so that he will live forever with the memory of his failure. The sisters are soon hanged for their crimes, but not before casting a spell that will allow them to return someday.
On the side of the angels we have Omri Katz as Max, who plays the typical moody teenager while still making a credible hero. As Max’s crush Allison, Vinessa Shaw makes such a savvy heroine that she rises above being merely the token love interest. A very young Thora Birch accomplishes a nearly impossible task: playing a bratty little sister without becoming insufferable. As the voice of Binx, Jason Marsden turns in a very poignant performance, conveying a deep, world-weary sorrow. Strangely, although Marsden also provides the voice of the human Binx, the character is played physically by Sean Murray. Luckily, the dubbing is neatly done, so it isn’t distracting. Finally, the filmmakers are kind enough to give us the brilliant Doug Jones as zombie Billy Butcherson (who is played by Karyn Malchus on the occasions when he loses his head). Billy, Winifred’s unfortunate former lover, starts out as a reluctant henchman of sorts before becoming one of the most likable characters in the film.
The special effects in “Hocus Pocus” sell the magical elements of the story and help keep up the fun, spooky tone. The effects used to create Binx, a combination of animatronics and live cats, are convincing, and it doesn’t take long to accept the idea of a talking feline. The makeup design for Billy Butcherson is very well done, suggesting decay without being too gory for a family film. As for the flying effects, you won’t see better work this side of a Quidditch match.
“Hocus Pocus” is primarily a comedy, and screenwriters Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert provide many amusing one-liners and visual gags (one of the most memorable being a flying vacuum cleaner). The witches get the best dialogue, of course, and it’s quite a laugh just to see the three sisters bantering. Some of the jokes may seem a bit risqué, but kids won’t take any notice of them, and they may provide adults with a smile or two.
Something that sets “Hocus Pocus” apart from other family films is its surprisingly frank references to heaven and hell. There’s no doubt as to whom the Sanderson Sisters have pledged their allegiance, and no doubt as to where they’re going after our heroes defeat them. On the other hand, when we see catch a glimpse of heaven, it’s a very touching moment.
Thankfully, the film doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with its moral points. In fact, it encapsulates one particularly heavy message into a single line delivered by Thora Birch’s character. In response to Winifred’s obsession with regaining her youth, the little girl answers back, “It doesn’t matter how young or old you are! You sold your soul! You’re the ugliest thing that’s ever lived, and you know it!” That’s a pretty powerful sentiment, made all the more meaningful because it comes from a child. The film also points out the importance of valuing our loved ones, and that living with guilt can be worse than death. It’s nice to see a family film that isn’t afraid to address such potentially upsetting themes.
Despite its talented cast and engaging story, “Hocus Pocus” is probably only a classic to those who grew up with it. But it deserves more credit than it gets, and the filmmakers should be applauded for their efforts. It’s a family film that raises important moral points without getting preachy or losing its sense of fun. For those who aren’t familiar with it, it’s certainly worth a look. For those who’ve always had a soft spot for it, “Hocus Pocus” is the perfect movie to watch while you’re munching Halloween candy, or whenever you’re just in the mood for a treat.