For a company that has spent 90 years now insistently bathing itself in sweetness and light, there's always been a certain love of dark, spooky shit driving Walt Disney Productions. In 1929, not even a full year after Mickey Mouse made his incredibly successful debut, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks oversaw the creation of the short musical cartoon The Skeleton Dance, five minutes of virtually nothing but macabre black comedy and horror film imagery; assorted spiders, bats, mad scientists, and witches kept popping up in the shorts for years after that, and there's the not-insignificant matters of the evil queen's witch disguise in the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the gloomy autumnal menace of the "Sleepy Hollow" half of 1949's The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. That latter film marks the end of this "creepy Disney" trend for a bit, until well after Walt's own death, but sometime in the late '70s, the urge to make family-friendly horror must have come back, because starting in 1980, the studio began semi-regularly putting its imprimatur on some decidedly freaky attempts at kiddie horror, including The Watcher in the Woods in 1980, Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1983, and Return to Oz in 1985.

That trend wore itself out along with the rest of early-'80s Disney, but every now and then, the company recalls its haunted history, and tries another stab at it. And it's surely not controversial to suggest that the most lasting of all Disney's kids' horror pictures, in terms of ongoing cultural presence and contemporary fandom, must be 1993's Hocus Pocus, a comedy about three witch sisters with a powerful desire to devour the life essence of all children. I will flatly declare that I don't get this. At 11, I was a year or two too old for Hocus Pocus at the time of its premiere, so I've never developed anything like nostalgia for it, which I'm sure is part of the problem. Still, there's nostalgia for things that remain great and nostalgia for things that are at least pretty good on the one hand, and nostalgia for things that just don't hold up, and Hocus Pocus is very much the latter sort of thing. It has strengths, to be sure - honestly pretty great strengths, if I'm being perfectly fair. But they are buried beneath a clumsy story concocted by David Kirschner and professional Stephen King ruiner Mick Garris, one that includes a whole lot of angles that don't really cohere into anything but a blurry smear of impulses centered around a teenage boy who's self-conscious about being horny all the time. Which is a... different sort of protagonist for a Disney movie.

That being said, I do know people love the thing, and I am kind-hearted, so let me start by talking about what works. For the uninitiated, Hocus Pocus begins in Salem, Massachuseetts, in 1693, right about when that town's infamous witch trials were just winding down (the film strongly implies the action begins on October 31, 1693, several months after the last victim was executed). Here, a coven of three witches, the Sanderson sisters, prepare to concoct a spell that will channel the life force of all of Salem's children into their bodies, granting them eternal youth. They're interrupted by the arrival of teenager Thackery Binx (Sean Murray), which is I guess close enough to a plausible name for a 17th Century male. Thackery's sister Emily (Amanda Shepherd) is the specific victim the Sandersons have chosen to start their orgy of soul-cannibalism, and though he's not quick enough to save her, he delays them enough for an enraged mob of torch-wielding townsfolk to come by. By the time the Sandersons have been hanged by the neck until dead, Thackery has been turned into a black cat (whose expressive face is played by an exceptionally good Rhythm & Hues CGI effect, by 1993 standards), and cursed to immortality. Meanwhile, Winnifred Sanderson (Bette Midler), the brains of the trio, has just enough time to spit out a spell to lock her and sisters Mary (Kathy Najimy) - the silly one - and Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) - the stupid one - into something more like a magical coma than death.

So far, so good, as these things go. The film is light on atmosphere at the best of times: choreographer-turned-director Kenny Ortega has no real sense of style, and (perhaps by corporate mandate) certainly emphasises the broad comic elements of the film at the expense of its Gothic qualities. That being said, the production design by William Sandell evokes a certain rickety old plushness that's hard to completely fuck up, and Mary E. Vogt's costumes for the Sandersons are absolute masterpieces, evoking a slight feeling of decay beneath the eccentric pile-up of lines, colors, and periods. Plus, two of the three main performances up to this point are wholly delightful: Midler amps up the diva camp aspects of her part in exactly the way one would want when casting her as a comic witch, and Najimy is honest-to-God acting in a role that certainly doesn't demand it; the precision of her timing and the cleverness of her bits of stage business are some of the most successfully funny elements of the film (Parker, I think, is just dreadfully annoying and one-note, giving into the worst elements of the writing rather than softening them, let alone transforming them into strengths).

The problem is that this opening represents a fairly small fraction of Hocus Pocus's very cluttered 96 minutes, and the Sanderson sisters aren't the protagonists. Instead, the action skips ahead to 1993, where we find the Dennisons, a family of brand-new transplants to Salem. The kids, of course, are the ones we need to mostly care about: Max (Omri Katz) is a high school student, and Dani (Thora Birch) is his drearily precocious eight-year-old sister, who takes unreasonable pleasure in mocking him about his virginity and his lust for pretty rich girl Allison (Vinessa Shaw). The three of them end up inadvertently resurrecting the Sandersons, and thereon hangs the story, but not for much too long, while we get all the character set-up and learn that Max, an insipid character indeed, is actually going to be our lead for the rest of the film, and the main arc of the film involves him coming up with the courage to say the word "boyfriend" to Allison.

"The" main arc? No, let's say "a" main arc, for one of the most annoying things about Hocus Pocus is how many rabbits it chases. "Max is horny" is one line, "Max learns to be a good brother" is another, and then there's a bit about Thackery Binx, who can talk now (in the voice of Jason Marsden), and provides all sorts of good advice to the heroes, and they're also being tracked by Billy Butcherson (Doug Jones), the mute zombie ex-lover of Winnifred, revived just to be her obviously disgruntled bloodhound. All that, and the film has the damn good sense to understand that the Sandersons are themselves the real draw, so they have to be given plenty of screentime, despite there being only, like, two plot points they ever get to pursue.

The sheer glut of stuff inside Hocus Pocus has the terrible effect of fucking up its pacing, making the not-egregiously-long movie feel substantially more than in its running time. Besides which, the filmmakers obviously can't manage all of the different elements of the film with equal delicacy, meaning that things like the brother-sister plot are more or less just flopped out there, while Cat-Binx is treated with some real pathos, and Butcherson's scenes keep popping up erratically and with no rhythm. The only constant is that the film is better when the Sandersons are onscreen than when they're not, though even here, it ebbs and flows: one scene might hinge on the 17th Century witches being so out-of-time that they don't understand even the concept of "costumes", let alone things like inter-city buses, and then in the next they idly use 20th Century slang. They're also able, with no real effort, to stage a Bette Midler cabaret number, a re-written cover of Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell On You". Which, to be sure, as badly-incorporated into the film as the number is, its presence is much appreciated.

Anyway, the point is: the witches are fun. Not "movie for the ages" fun, but between the cartoony lines of the costumes and the energetic commitment of the actors (even, I concede, Parker), they bring a bit of black-comic sparkle to the proceedings. The thing is, they're just one part of the film of many, and the film's fascination with Max's extremely boilerplate march through boilerplate "teen angst repackaged for preteens" shenanigans is absolutely no fun at all, and there's a lot more of that. And no matter how glistening and black the nighttime cinematography is, how moody the set design, and how unabashedly wicked the witches are, the film's simply too slack and toothless to work more than intermittently as horror, which is the one thing I can think of that might have mitigated the rest of it. It's not, like, terrible, but it's pretty bland and uninspired, nothing like the strange and compelling Disney horror of the decade prior - and even that was more oddball than good. All the love in the world to the film's cult, but Hocus Pocus really isn't doing nearly enough to stave off the boredom that hits it like a tidal wave the minute it switches over to 1993.