Hocus Pocus is a strange case in the Found Footage files. Here we have a film that was initially widely panned by critics, a commercial misfire at the box office (where it was strangely released in July) and a misguided star vehicle that would lead to a decade’s worth of disappointments for its star, Bette Midler. The film was tailor-made to showcase Miss M’s talents, and as the ship went down, so she went down with it—which is probably why she still lists it as her favorite film that she’s ever done. Hocus Pocus symbolizes something. But despite the film’s poor reception, Hocus Pocus became a huge hit when it premiered on the Disney channel and enjoyed heavy rotation in the film’s “original movie” lineup, despite the fact that it was a theatrical release. I highly doubt its target audience minded.
I actually remember its inaugural airing on Disney, as it showed right after a LeAnn Rimes concert. (This was the equivalent of a red carpet introduction in 1997.) I’d already seen the film by then, numerous times, and loved it, but despite its gradual increase in popularity via the cult canon over the years, I liked the film less as I got older. Although many films from my childhood held up quite well (and I argue that Addams Family Values plays much better as an adult, when you understand how ferociously macabre it is), I began to abhor the ludicrous amount of inconsistencies in the film. Most kids’ films don’t have to adhere to logic, but this one took the cake. Somehow, a witch doesn’t know what a road, car or bus are, but knows what a learner’s permit is? How were witches using margarine in 1693, when it wasn’t invented until the 1800s? Is the cat, who can magically pass through fences, a ghost cat or a real cat? If he’s a ghost and can pass through things, how can he die again at the end of the movie? Applying any sort of order to this film hurts the brain, as the movie can’t seem to follow its own rules or realize it should have them in the first place. When anything can happen in a movie, it feels meaningless. There are no stakes.
As an adult, whenever I bring up my dislike of the film to other kids who grew up in the 90s, they act as if I poisoned their apple. They will say it’s just a kids’ movie, and I shouldn’t take it so seriously. But then I think of the number of films aimed at children that treat their audience with so much respect and admiration. Take Wall-E, a film that knows its young viewers can appreciate great, mostly silent storytelling. Or The Lion King, a movie that markets Hamlet to kids and succeeds admirably. Or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a landmark masterpiece that shows an incredible attention to mise-en-scene and detail. I think of kids’ films that I liked more than the kids I saw them with—Toy Story 3, The Adventures of Tintin, Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius and Finding Nemo—movies filled with hope, imagination and real wonder. Even Up, which I wasn’t wild about as a whole, features one of the greatest opening scenes I’ve ever encountered in a film, a sequence so meticulously devastating that it makes grown men blubber.
And when its cult audience refers to Hocus Pocus as a “classic,” a part of me winces that it gets to stand alongside good company. However, rather than tearing down what seems like low-hanging fruit (because who wants to tell the world why a kids’ film is bad?), I thought I would attempt to see the film from the perspective of its fans and ask what purpose it serves in the cult canon and why its massive audience responds to it with such fervor. I think that part of the idolizing of Hocus Pocus has less to do with it being an objectively good film—which there’s almost no argument for—and more about its status as a cultural artifact. In the last couple years, internet culture has helped champion the resurgence of 90s nostalgia, and its recent cult flowering is largely due to that. Like Nickelodeon entertainments Good Burger, Kenan and Kel, All That and almost everything Kenan Thompson was involved in, we don’t ask it to be good. We just ask it to exist as a site of memory, a moment in the cultural imagination that we can turn to as a point of reference. Enjoyment of Hocus Pocus becomes less about the film than what it represents: childhood.
Hocus Pocus is a perfect reclaimed film in the nostalgia factory precisely because the film is almost entirely about childhood—the literal deflowering of youth, living in a secret world that adults can’t see, one always on the verge of danger and collapse, and what it means to grow up before you’re ready. For its audience, the film (which probably came out when they were very young) would be introduced at a time on cable when they were being forced to face many of these same issues, an artifact that stood then for the duality of innocence and loss. Because of that, keeping the film alive acts as a form of resistance against adulthood, just as Max resists his parents’ adult decision to move to Salem. Max is like us—a virgin on the verge of a nervous breakdown—and when we share gifs of the film on Tumblr or reminisce about it on Facebook, we transform his angst into viral levity. Like Mean Girls and other internet sensations, it’s like the adult version of sharing a popsicle stick, just with 1000 Twitter followers. It’s sharing something both personal and public.
Aside from techno-thematic relevance for its target generation (the incipient Millennial), the film fits many of the hallmarks of a cult film. Many films embraced by the cult don’t technically succeed as films overall (see: The Rules of Attraction, Lost Highway), but they feature memorable, striking sequences that deserve public sharing and message board commentary. The Rules of Attraction was a soulless, vapid film with no characters, but it’s loaded with so much style and avant-garde verve that the backwards party scenes make up for the film’s thespic dada-ness. (Whoever thought James Van Der Beek could carry a film was on more drugs than the film’s characters.) And like Attraction, Hocus Pocus features the memorable vacuum cleaner getaway, some of Midler’s finest over-the-top hamming and a grand excuse for Midler to break out into song for no reason. Like the stage career Midler sprang from, the movie’s about putting on a show, often at the expense of plot and logic.
Although the film isn’t “good” in the ways we expect cinema to be good and the A-story almost never works, what’s happening in the periphery is enough of a madcap ball that the rest matters less than it should. There’s just enough of a there there that it’s audience can create a classic out of it, even if it means forgiving plot holes a witch could fly through on a vacuum cleaner. With a movie like this, you have to embrace it, warts and all—even if it doesn’t make a damn lick of sense.