A Little Witch in Every Woman?

The semi-comic Practical Magic is serious about the idea that witchcraft is respectable

In the name of pluralism and tolerance, much of today's popular culture aggressively promotes moral relativism. This means that almost any set of beliefs is judged OK if its practitioners have good hearts and pure intentions.

For the past 30 years witches have been edging their way into mainstream respectability. Feminists celebrate the craft as a form of female empowerment and a small but increasing number of accredited educational institutions teach it as a legitimate form of spiritual expression.

Practical Magic tries to pass itself off as a harmless piece of family entertainment — a cross between the jokey hit TV series Bewitched and successful features like The Witches of Eastwick and I Married A Witch. Its characters are always attaching disclaimers to their spooky behavior like: “Witches, yes; Evil, no” or “There is no devil in the cult.” But director Griffin Dunne and screenwriters Robin Swicord, Akiva Goldman, and Adam Brooks present witches as morally superior to their normal, straight-arrow neighbors, and their powers as proof of the strength of sisterhood.

The all-female Owens family lives in a haunted house on an island off the coast of New England. They are descended from a 17th-century woman named Maria, who had affairs with men who refused to acknowledge her publicly. In a flashback, we see the Puritan authorities try to hang her as a witch. “They feared her because she had the gift,” we're told.

Because of her powers, Maria somehow breaks free. And for reasons not fully explained, all her female descendants carry a curse: Any man who loves an Owens woman will suffer an untimely death.

Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nicole Kidman) have inherited both the witchy powers and the family hex. Orphaned at an early age, they are raised by their eccentric aunts Jet (Dianne Wiest) and Frances (Stockard Channing) in a wooden Victorian gingerbread mansion. Dressed in colorful Edwardian clothes, the older women cast spells, prescribe medicinal herbs, and practice other forms of white magic.

The young girls are picked on by their schoolmates and shunned by the rest of the town as witches. But in hypocritical fashion, these regular citizens sneak off to get help from the aunts. Sally and Gillian watch a townswoman use a specially prepared love potion to make another woman's husband go crazy for her. The filmmakers want us to perceive witches as more honest than ordinary folk who condemn the craft but secretly take advantage of its powers.

Neither girl wants to get involved with the family tradition. Sally craves acceptance from her neighbors. She marries a local blue-collar worker and has two daughters. “She has all the power but doesn't use it,” her aunts scold. But the Owens’ curse is still operative and when it kills her husband, she's emotionally destroyed.

Gillian gets as far away as possible from her hometown. An unusually attractive woman, she has a series of affairs, culminating in a romance with the possessive Jimmy Angelov (Goran Visnjic) who sports “a cowboy-vampire” look. He beats her when she tries to end the relationship.

Overwhelmed by personal problems, the two sisters reunite. Jimmy follows Gillian to New England and tries to kill her. Desperate, Gillian wants to pray to God but is told that won't work.

Sally is forced to murder Jimmy to save her sibling. They bury him on the grounds of the family mansion, but somehow he rises from his grave. The sisters decide to use their inherited powers for the first time and perform an exorcism.

A handsome cop from Arizona named Gary Hallett (Aidan Quinn) shows up at their home asking questions about Jimmy's disappearance. Sally falls for him and finds it difficult to tell him lies. The movie creates suspense over the question of whether he will arrest the young witch or marry her.

Practical Magic has its fair share of laughs and terrifying special effects. But its message is pernicious. We're encouraged to believe that there's a little witch in every woman so we should accept practitioners of the craft as members of a benign, alternative lifestyle. In case we miss the point, the filmmakers have the townspeople drop their centuries-old hostility to witches and embrace the Owens as regular folk. This kind of thinking indicates how Hollywood's current moral relativism can be damaging to our spiritual health.

Arts and Culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Washington, D.C.

Practical Magic is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America.