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MOVIE REVIEWS : ‘Hocus Pocus’ Not Quite Bewitching

TIMES FILM CRITIC

The most important thing to remember about “Hocus Pocus” is not its celebrated co-stars but the traditional label it’s going out under. Logos don’t lie, and by releasing this film under the Walt Disney Pictures banner (as opposed to its racier Touchstone and Hollywood divisions), Disney is telegraphing that this PG-picture’s heart and soul belong to the world of well-scrubbed youth movies the studio used to specialize in.

But isn’t this the film with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy in much-publicized roles as 17th-Century witches come back to bustling life in modern times, camping and vamping it up in a way few toddlers are of an age to appreciate? What are they doing in the same picture with a talking cat and bad guys who can think of nothing worse to do than steal candy on Halloween?

The answer is that “Hocus Pocus” apparently aims to be a family movie of a calculating kind, offering a little something for every demographic group within reach of the price of admission. Younger children can identify with the 8-year-old heroine, adolescents can enjoy either the plentiful special effects or the film’s photogenic teen-age protagonists, and parents can watch Bette, Sarah and Kathy romp and stomp around.

A very commercial idea, and “Hocus Pocus” is sporadically successful at making it work, at least on the kids’ film level. But after setting up the situation, screenwriters Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert (working from a story by David Kirschner and Garris) have a hard time coming up with interesting places for the plot to go. So even at 96 minutes (and padded out with pointless, uncredited cameos by Garry and Penny Marshall) “Hocus” feels thin and undernourished from an adult point of view.

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The story opens in ye olde Salem, Mass., circa 1693, where the three Sanderson sisters--forceful Winifred (Midler), airhead Sarah (Parker) and eager Mary (Najimy)--are in the process of extracting the life force from a hapless little girl, the better to appear young and nominally beautiful themselves.

Things don’t quite work out for the trio, but before they depart this life, they emphatically vow to be back. Cut now to 1993, where high schooler Max Dennison (Omri Katz), newly moved to Salem from free-thinking Los Angeles, goes on the record as believing that the Sandersons’ by now celebrated promise is a bunch of hooey.

More open to the legend, however, is Max’s fetching classmate Allison (Vinessa Shaw), and Max is nothing if not open to getting to know her better. So when he and younger sister Dani (the captivating Thora Birch) run into Allison on Halloween, a trip to the old Sanderson house to check out the tale can hardly be avoided.

The house is suitably dark and creepy and before you can say, well, hocus pocus, the Sandersons are back in business, “three ancient hags versus the 20th Century,” as one of the kids puts it. Their mission is to recover their spell book and draw the life force out of every child in sight before the rising sun of a new day turns them forever to dust.

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All three actresses, most especially Midler, clearly had a fine time as the sisters of Satan, complete with comically convincing chants and incantations. Their energetic version of “I Put a Spell on You” is breezy and cheerful, which is the tone director Kenny Ortega, responsible for the ill-starred “Newsies,” has tried for throughout.

But though children may be satisfied (if the witch stuff doesn’t scare them) adults will have a harder time with the by-the-numbers confrontations between the witches and the plucky youths.

‘Hocus Pocus’

Bette Midler: Winifred

Sarah Jessica Parker: Sarah

Kathy Najimy: Mary

Omri Katz: Max

Thora Birch: Dani

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Vinessa Shaw: Allison

A David Kirschner/Steven Haft production, released by Walt Disney Pictures. Director Kenny Ortega. Producers David Kirschner and Steven Haft. Executive producer Ralph Winter. Screenplay Mick Garris and Neil Cuthbert, based on a story by David Kirschner and Mick Garris. Cinematographer Hiro Narita. Editor Peter E. Berger. Costumes Mary Vogt. Music John Debney. Production design William Sandell. Art director Nancy Patton. Set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG (some scary sequences and for language).


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