Practical Magic is a 1998 movie directed by Griffin Dunne. Based on the novel by Alice Hoffman, the movie tells the story of sisters Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian Owens (Nicole Kidman), who come from a family of witches in Massachusetts. With a family curse that dooms any man that falls in love with them, the sisters take different paths in life, but are reunited when Gillian is in a relationship with Jimmy (Goran Višnjić), a violent and abusive man. After killing him in self-defense, the sisters must work together to stop his spirit from destroying them.
The movie was a box office flop that didn’t make its budget back. It also received negative reviews from critics, who disliked the various genres and tones the movie has, though there was praise for Bullock and Kidman’s performances. In the nearly 25 years since its release, the movie has become slightly more appreciated, and is now considered a cult classic. Let’s take a look back at the witchy romance movie.
The Mixing of Genres
One of the biggest parts of the movie – and what critics disliked the most – is its mixing of various genres. There are elements of dark comedy, romance, fantasy, and drama, without settling on a defining genre or tone to properly focus on. Additionally, according to Collider, the movie was marketed as a “fun, feel-good romantic comedy,” making the darker elements unwelcome to viewers who expected something light. The different tones admittedly clash at times, but on the other hand, they bring a little something for everyone.
On the romance side, things center around Sally and Gary (Aidan Quinn), the investigator looking into Jimmy’s death. As a child, Sally wants to ensure that she never falls in love, so she casts a spell dictating that she will only fall in love with a man who has certain rare traits. As she realizes Gary has these traits, she falls for him, then pushes him away because of the curse. Gary, however, says he doesn’t believe in the curse, and loves her in spite of it. In the fantasy realm, Jimmy’s spirit pursues and harasses the sisters, even possessing Gillian’s body. These more intense moments are lightened by the dry humor, like Sally and Gillian’s aunts making magical margaritas. How effective the genre shifts are is dependent on the viewer; while some may like it, others may want the movie to either be a straightforward rom-com or a dark fantasy, and not both.
The Family and Women-Centered Dynamic
The majority of the movie focuses on the women that make up the Owens family. Though there are more women-led movies being made currently, it was special at the time. Both women are different and well-rounded characters; while Sally is strict and cautious, Gillian is bold and free-spirited. What’s also noteworthy is that the movie doesn’t put the sisters against each other or make them rivals. Instead, though Sally is weary of Gillian at first, she supports her sister entirely; as children, they make a pact to always stay close, and Sally honors that pact when adult Gillian needs her help. Their aunts, Frances and Jet (Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest, respectively) are also given more storylines in the movie than they have in the book. They care for Sally and Gillian when they are kids, and they all come to live together again as adults, with Sally’s daughters adding a new generation, and furthering the family dynamic.
Finally, though the people in town have shunned Sally and her family, both for being unmarried and for being witches, the local women come together and help them in a time of need. When Gillian is possessed by Jimmy’s spirit again, and tries to kill Sally, Sally must embrace the magic she has sworn off using. Needing more power than she can provide by herself, she asks the women in town to form a coven with her, and free Gillian of Jimmy’s abusive spirit. The women join forces and do so, banishing Jimmy’s spirit for good. The Atlantic described it as a “satisfying moment of sisterhood” that celebrates the movie’s ideas of family and womanhood.
With its mix of magic and romance, the movie’s themes also revolve around love, both in romance and family, and the embracing of magic and power. Sally, after losing her first husband – who she was able to marry due to magical meddling by her aunts – swears off both magic and love. It’s sweet to see her begin to embrace both again, especially her romance with Gary. He is understanding and accepting of her and her family, and sees his love as more powerful than the curse on the Owens family. Also, her embracing magic again is also like her embracing her family again, and finally seeing how magical they all are.
Gillian, who moves past her abusive ex, also gets satisfaction in embracing her own power, and that of her family. Though she has followed her free spirit and traveled, she too comes back to her family for help. She embraces the comfort of her family as she struggles with Jimmy’s spirit, and gets the love she needs from them.
Practical Magic is not the straightforward movie viewers might expect. Those wanting a romantic comedy might be put off by the dark elements, while those wanting a dark witch movie might not enjoy the romance. Despite its messy combination of genres, the movie is nevertheless a fun celebration of witches, women, family, and embracing your power.