HOCUS POCUS – Blu-ray review

Kenny Ortega’s claim to fame is that he choreographed and directed the “High School Musical” series that became a bona fide phenomenon. But his first Disney movie came 14 years earlier with “Newsies,” a full-blown musical. And he followed that up with “Hocus Pocus,” a live-action 1993 Disney Halloween-themed comedy starring singer Bette Midler (who sings just one song in the film) and fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker (who looks anything but fashionable).

Midler and Parker are two-thirds of a boil-and-bubble trio of sister witches, with comic actress Kathy Najimy (“Sister Act”) as the third. In a plot that will remind old-school Disney lovers a little of “Blackbeard’s Ghost,” the three witches are hanged in Salem in the 1600s during the witch trials, but they return when a young boy makes a “boo boo” and opens the portal for them to haunt once again . . . on Halloween weekend, of course.

Returning with the witches (though who knows why) is the brother of a young girl that they drained of her youth to make them look younger, a fellow whom they turned into a cat (black, of course) with not just nine lives, but immortality. This kitty can get run over by a steamroller and still morph back into shape and shake it off.

Naturally, when they return there’s a parallel situation, with a young girl (Amanda Shepherd) whose essence they’re after and older brother (Sean Murray) who tries to overcome his meekness in order to save his sister.

I hope Midler got paid a lot to do this film, because she sacrifices her dignity, wearing buck teeth throughout and acting as over-the-top as a comedic actress at a community theater. Along with the other two, this bumbling bunch comes across like a Wiccan version of the hillbilly family in “Pete’s Dragon” that pursued little Petie. And that style of acting can be tough to take over 96 minutes. It certainly overpowers everything else, rendering the minor characters even more minor and the plot little more than a chronological stage for the three witches to perform on.

Still, “Hocus Pocus” has a following and it draws large audiences every time ABC Family airs it. The special effects are decent, the kids are normal enough that young viewers can identify with them, and “Hocus Pocus” is family-friendly, insomuch as it’s fairly tame for a Halloween movie. Think Samantha from “Bewitched” and you’re in the neighborhood—only these witches ride brooms . . . and even a vacuum cleaner. There’s enough broad humor to set a tone that defuses any “terror,” and the only thing that some parents might object to is the mention of Max’s “virginity,” which factors into the plot. The scariest sequences come in the first 10 minutes of this PG-rated film, when people die.

Fans will be glad to move beyond the 2002 letterboxed DVD release to an actual widescreen presentation—though they can’t escape it entirely. The DVD included in this combo pack appears to be the very same one as before, with no remastering to take it into the world of anamorphic widescreen. So I can’t imagine it will get much play.

The Blu-ray, on the other hand, looks very good in HD for a catalog title. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB Blu-ray disc turns up no artifacts or excessive DNR, but this has always been a slightly dark and sketchy film, and some of the detail seems lost in low-lit scenes. At least there’s no haloing or noise. Colors are bright, skin-tones are believable (note that I don’t say “natural”), and fans should be pleased with the transfer. “Hocus Pocus” in HD is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 that does the job, but, given the special effects, doesn’t really rock the flight as much as you’d expect. Ambient sounds abound, but the volume is cranked down on the rear effects channels. It’s when the music kicks in that you appreciate the clarity and force behind the soundtrack—though, again, don’t look for much thump in the bass. Additional audio options are French Dolby Digital 5.1 and Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese.

Someone waved a wand over these discs, because if there were any bonus features, they disappeared—only a few trailers for other films. And who counts those?

Bottom line:
“Hocus Pocus” is like so many Disney live-action films—just a little too over-the-top for its own good.