Of whales and witches 'Hocus Pocus': Say magic words and hope it disappears


"Hocus Pocus"

Starring Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker

and Kathy Najimy

Directed by Kenny Ortega

Released by Disney

Rated PG

... ** As Shakespeare would have certainly written if he'd been on the movie beat, "Double, double toil and trouble, movie stink and critic bubble/'Hocus Pocus' has no focus/has no rhyme, has no reason/ and is . . . out of season."

The movie begins with its foot in the bucket and never gets out. I mean, it is somewhat difficult to do a frothy musical parody when the first scene depicts the comical murder of a darling little girl whose "life vapors" are sucked out of her by a trio of third-rate actresses. The three witches -- Bette Midler, camping and vamping as the ringleader, and Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy, stumbling and bumbling as the two younger sisters -- are quickly rounded up by townspeople and happily hanged in Salem, Mass., circa 1693.

However, if they went straight to hell and fried until the earth was swallowed by the sun, it wouldn't make a very good movie. So, on Halloween night 300 years later, when a bumbling New Kid on the Block (he's from California) accidentally evokes the ancient curse by lighting the wrong candle (Lighting the wrong candle! How clever can they get?), he brings the three back to life -- sort of.

Actually, only one of them could be confused with a semblance of life. That's Midler, and you can tell she's the star because she gets the good lines, all two of them. But a signal difficulty with "Hocus Pocus" is that Najimy, who was so vivid in "Sister Act," and Parker, equally vivid in "Honeymoon in Vegas," remain blurs all the way through. Their characters have been conceived in the crudest of slapsticky terms, and neither of them gets a good moment or even a close-up!

And the movie suffers from a paucity of imagination. It fundamentally has but one incident, which it repeats over and over in slightly different tones. An older brother hustles to save his sister from ingestion by witches. Sometimes he makes it, sometimes he doesn't. And that's pretty much the movie, with filler thrown in to pad it out to 80 minutes.

It's also surprisingly intense for a PG audience. I saw it in a theater full of very small children, most of whom were reduced to hysteria in a few minutes, as it happily traffics in the kind of broadly conceived horror effects -- rotting corpses, fingers falling off, the specter of teen-age zombies, actual grown-ups -- that make me truly wonder if it wouldn't be better off as a PG-13.

The story is dull: The teen hero, girlfriend and little sister try gamely to end the night of the witches while the witches try to get their clammy hands on one or more children. Director Kenny Ortega cuts back and forth between these two teams of three, but only Midler and peppy little Thora Birch as the young sister truly register. Everyone else is generic.

There's a lively musical interlude that's so crudely integrated into the film you wonder why they bothered -- the old "gym dance" thing, that somehow ends up with Midler belting out show tunes while Najimy and Parker doo-wop in the background. A wasted opportunity, because Najimy was so magical in "Sister Act" when the music started and she turned out to be a graceful, charismatic dancer, but Ortega gets nothing so remarkable from her.

I have heard that there's a sequel planned already. That's the bad news. The good news is that it won't get here for 300 years, which, even so, may be rushing it a bit.

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