Category Archives: The Old Toy Chest

An Old Toy Chest Christmas Special — The Christmas Toy

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

It’s Christmastime once again, which means it’s time to bring out those beloved holiday movies and TV specials that we’ve seen a hundred times before. But what about those beloved holiday movies and specials that we haven’t seen a hundred times — or at least, haven’t seen in years and years? Sure, we all know and love specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the Chuck Jones version, not that abysmal Ron Howard movie), and we’ve seen timeless classics like A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life and Die Hard 2 over and over again.

But what about The Christmas Toy? What about The Small One? When was the last time you watched The Snowman? These are Christmas specials that I look back on with fondness but have not seen since I was just a boy. These just don’t get the attention, or the airplay, that Rudolph and Frosty and The Grinch get, so they get lost over the years in the shuffle. But that is why God invented the Internet.

So, I curled up with a cup of eggnog and scoured Netflix and YouTube for old holiday favorites, some of which I haven’t even thought of in years, and settled on The Christmas Toy for my special holiday installment of “The Old Toy Chest.”

 

 

(Warning: Here be spoilers!)

The Christmas Toy is a pre-Toy Story toy story from Jim Henson and his Muppeteers that involves similar themes of an old favorite toy’s fears of being replaced by a shiny new toy. The shiny new toy is even a space-themed action figure who believes she really is a space warrior-queen — but “Meteora,” as she is called, is a far cry from a Buzz Lightyear action figure. She actually seems like a really lame Christmas present — like a cheap rip-off version of a Masters of the Universe action figure that your parents might have gotten you because the real thing cost more. Her place in this story becomes more perplexing when it’s revealed that the other child in this story received an old-timey toy British soldier as his Christmas present. Also, mom walks around the house in the evening wearing business casual. What era are these people living in?

 

Cool.

 

Super cool.

 

Lame.

 

The Christmas Toy also posits a much, much scarier consequence for being seen alive by a human. If a toy is seen out of place, it is “frozen” forever; i.e, it “dies.” There is a scene early on that shows this happen, and I remember being profoundly affected by it as a child — to this day, that image of the little clown doll sticking his head out the door, being seen by the kids’ mom, and slumping to the floor has stuck in my mind. What I did not remember was the other toys trying to waken his lifeless body, then conducting a funeral procession and laying him out in a corner with other “dead” toys of the past.

 

Normally I'd be okay with the death of a clown. But this made me sad.

 

It makes the danger feel very real to the viewer when Rugby the tiger, last year’s favorite Christmas toy, tries to get back to the living room so he can climb into the box marked for his little girl, Jamie, and be opened again. He thinks Christmas is about him, and does not understand that Jamie will be getting a new favorite toy. After a rescue mission led by a red-haired doll named Apple, who was Jamie’s favorite toy before Rugby came along, there is an even more affecting “death” scene when Mew the mouse, who is constantly discriminated against by the other toys for being a cat toy, doesn’t make it back to the toy room in time. He is the most selfless character, the only one who stuck by Rugby despite his egomania and his constant slurs against cat toys. Rugby goes back to try to save him but is too late, and finds him “dead” in the cat’s bed.

 

 

What follows surprised me. It is one of the best dramatic presentations of a friend mourning the loss of a friend I have ever seen. It’s a cat puppet saying goodbye to a mouse puppet, and it hits closer to the truth about death and loss than I’ve seen in most human performances. I can easily imagine Rugby’s song in this scene being sung at a funeral. And I, a nearly 30-year-old man, cried.

The end result of this scene may be a bit controversial. Rugby’s expression of pure love for his friend brings Mew back to life. Dramatically, this is perfectly satisfying for me. Christmas is not just a bunch of traditions to me. See, I truly believe in the things we are celebrating this season — that God enacted humanity’s redemption through the birth of Jesus, his Son in human flesh. I also believe in the rest of that story — the life, the death, the resurrection. To see a Christmas special that focuses on the traditions of trees and toys turn into a story of redemption and a bringing-to-life through an outpouring of pure love is incredibly profound to me. A Christmas story about resurrection — I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.

This is heavy stuff for a children’s Christmas program. The controversial part, at least to me, is that young minds are impressionable; and what does Mew coming back to life teach them about the realities of death? However, I applaud Henson and company for addressing these themes of life and death and new life without pandering. The Christmas Toy is one Christmas tradition I would like to pass on to my own children someday, but not passively. They will need an understanding adult to guide them through these heavy themes and to answer questions that will undoubtedly arise in their fragile little minds (especially if they are anything like I was at so young an age).

I suppose, in the spirit of fairness, though, that I should point out that I found some of this show just the slightest bit creepy. Some of that creepiness is inherent in the idea that when you leave a room, dolls come to life. Dolls are creepy to begin with, especially clown dolls and those cherub-faced porcelain dolls that some people collect for some demented reason. I don’t like the idea of them watching me. But without being cynical, I am fine with the idea of toys coming to life in the dramatic sense. I absolutely love the Toy Story trilogy and the story of The Velveteen Rabbit.

The extra creepiness comes through no fault of The Christmas Toy itself. It’s just that any clown doll character is going to remind me, firstly, of actual clowns, who are inherently creepy, and secondly, of the clown doll that came to life in Poltergeist. Add to that equation the character of Apple, who looks a lot like Chucky from Child’s Play, and Meteora, who reminded me quite a bit of the Leech Woman from Puppet Master (both films came out a couple of years after The Christmas Toy), and the creepiness factor gets amped up considerably. Then there’s Mew’s weird crush on Meteora, which… I just don’t know what to do with that.

 

Right? Even the outfit!

 

Putting aside its bizarre aesthetic connections to various horror films, The Christmas Toy is one of my favorite Christmas specials, and I am very glad I finally was able to watch it again. I definitely got a lot more out of it now than I did when I was a kid, and that is what the best children’s stories should do.

The Christmas Toy is currently available for instant streaming on Netflix, but you can watch a free (albeit much lesser quality) version on YouTube.

Merry Christmas, Rant Pad readers. May the joy of Christ be yours this holiday season. And may you enjoy many a special Christmas movie.

–Tom

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

The Old Toy Chest — The Muppets Take Manhattan

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood – sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I have grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

 

“Dear bears and chickens and things: Is New York. Is play. Is TIME!”

As a child in the 80s, you had your big four magic-makers of movies and television: you had your Disney, you had your Lucasfilm, you had your Amblin Entertainment… and then you had your Muppets.

The Muppets are unlike anything that ever has been or ever will be. It takes almost no imagination to believe in the wonderful illusion of life begun by Jim Henson over half a century ago. The illusion is certainly easy to believe while watching a movie starring these puppets, but just watch any on-the-spot interview or interaction between a Muppet and a human being, and challenge yourself not to forget you’re watching a puppet. For all we know, these characters exist in our reality. Given the proper circumstances, you could find yourself talking to a Muppet face to face one day, and even then, see if you don’t find yourself believing you’re talking to Kermit the Frog. Not some puppeteer — Kermit THE Frog.

 

 

The Muppets were ubiquitous in the 80s and well into the 90s. I loved them. How could you not? Aside from some religious nuts who believe that anthropomorphizing animals in a fantastic setting is of the devil (yes, they exist, and I’ve been subjected to their teachings), who doesn’t love the Muppets?

The Muppet Show happened a little before my time, and I have only in recent years become familiar with some of the original sketches and musical classics through DVDs and YouTube, but I grew up watching Muppet movies, from the original 1979 Muppet Movie to The Great Muppet Caper to the classic holiday special A Muppet Family Christmas to Disney-MGM Studios’ brilliant Muppet*Vision 3D attraction to 1999′s Muppets from Space. I still love Sesame Street, and Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller both hold special places in my memories. And I was fully on board when Muppets Tonight aired as part of ABC’s TGIF lineup in 1996 — it was one of those shows I would look forward to during school on Fridays.

Since the less-than-stellar (no pun intended) Muppets from Space, though, it really is no big surprise that the Muppets have been relegated over the past decade to mediocre TV specials and straight-to-video fare. That is why, as I believe many Muppet lovers were, I was both thrilled and trepidacious when I heard, shortly after seeing the surprisingly good Forgetting Sarah Marshall, that writer/star Jason Segel was working on a new Muppet movie. My feelings on the project went up and down over the past three years as I awaited this first theatrical Muppet movie in over a decade. I started to get excited about it once Segel, Kermit, Miss Piggy and the others started making the rounds on talk and variety shows. (Yes, it was Kermit and Piggy talking to Jimmy Fallon, not Steve Whitmire or Eric Jacobson.)

When I went into the theater, I had a massive grin and felt giddy as a little boy. When I came out, I had mixed emotions and may need to see it a second time to really know how I feel about the whole thing. I do have one burning question for Segel and company, though, one that kind of sticks in my craw… but I’ll get back to that, because I am not here to talk at length about The Muppets. (If you do long for extended discourse on this highly enjoyable new film, though, it is featured on our Buried Cinema podcast and podcast minisode this week!)

Far and away my favorite Muppet film now is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is not just a brilliant Muppet movie full of amazing practical and digital effects but also a great adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel; but as a little boy in the 1980s, my favorite was The Muppets Take Manhattan. The Muppets Take Manhattan is the only true Muppet movie directed by Frank Oz (though he also directed The Dark Crystal). Frank Oz may be second only to Jim Henson himself in the Muppet world — not only did he create and perform Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, but he is also the original talent behind Animal and Sam Eagle; Sesame Street‘s Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert; and the Master Jedi himself, Yoda.

I got a DVD copy of The Muppets Take Manhattan out of a cereal box. (I think it was the same cereal that gave me a DVD episode of Inspector Gadget, though I don’t remember which cereal it was.) I’ve had it sitting in my collection for years without sitting down to watch it. Maybe I was afraid it wouldn’t be as good as I remembered, though having seen it a thousand times as a kid, I remembered a lot. But after watching The Muppets, a film steeped in Muppet history that references the 1984 classic in several wonderful ways, I knew it was time to pull this old favorite out of the toy chest. Here are some of my thoughts while watching The Muppets Take Manhattan for the first time since probably the mid-90s:

 

The Muppets Take Manhattan opening title

“It’s all about a couple of kids who come to New York to get married, and it has a great opening number, it goes like this!”

 

First of all, the revelation that my DVD copy of The Muppets Take Manhattan doubles as a free trial for America Online tells me that I have, indeed, had this movie in my collection for far too long without watching it. Second, I had no recollection that this film begins with Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf, Scooter, Gonzo, Camilla, and Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem putting on a senior variety show called Manhattan Melodies upon graduating college. They’re such a big hit with their fellow seniors in the audience that they get the idea in their heads that they could make it on Broadway. So they all pack up and head for the Big Apple.

Something that struck me about the Muppets as they were arriving in New York City is that in this world, nobody looks twice at a bunch of anthropomorphic dogs and bears and chickens and things walking around, wearing ties, talking and singing and dancing. It’s one of the charms of the Muppets that they are always seen as social abnormalities, but not so abnormal as to warrant pointing and staring in an everyday setting. (Also, I was certain that the lady walking through the background at 6:17 was a pre-Blood Simple Frances McDormand, but I can find no proof of this on the web, not even on McDormand’s Muppet Wiki page.)

 

 

Kermit and the gang suffer a string of failed pitches, starting with Martin Price (a cameo by Dabney Coleman), who is arrested mid-meeting as a con man when an old woman shows up with — and this is funny — two uniformed police officers, and accuses him of stealing her life savings. (This scene also features a pre-Star Trek Gates “Dr. Beverly Crusher” McFadden. Could this be called a “retro-cameo”?) The rest of the gang decides, in order to stop being such a burden on Kermit all the time, to leave New York and go their separate ways.

This scene takes place in a diner where another most beloved Muppet is working, and this leads me to my big question for Jason Segel and the Walt Disney Company: What happened to Rizzo? The rats get some background screen time in The Muppets, and I’ve read that Rizzo himself is in there somewhere (though I didn’t see him, and I was looking); but at this point, Rizzo is one of those characters who should always have a featured role just like Fozzie or Gonzo or Rowlf — or at the very least, a memorable speaking role, like Pepe the King Prawn gets as Miss Piggy’s temporary dance partner. (Another favorite who doesn’t seem to be getting the love this year is Bean Bunny. I didn’t notice if he was in the movie or not either. What gives, fellas?)

 

Authorities at the Rant Pad are looking into the disappearance of this rat. If you have any information regarding Rizzo’s whereabouts, please contact the editor by leaving a comment in our aptly named “comments section.” Thank you.

 

Speaking of rats: Rizzo, Chester, Yolanda, Masterson, and Tatooey get an interesting little scene created by Jim Henson called the “Rat Scat,” in which they do a musical number using things lying around the kitchen. This scene pre-dates the dance troupe Stomp by a few years, but does not pre-date its origins in the U.K. It makes me wonder if Henson had seen a performance by the group in its early years and been inspired. Or, maybe he was just a guy who liked to turn his pots and pans into a percussion section. After all, he did become a worldwide cultural phenomenon with some ping-pong balls and the fabric from an old turquoise coat. Henson was a man of brilliant simplicity.

 

“Songs AND dances? That might be interesting…”

 

One of the things I’ve remembered most clearly over the years is the music. This movie has many wonderful, memorable songs, including “Right Where I Belong,” “Saying Goodbye,” “I’m Gonna Always Love You,” “Somebody’s Getting Married,” “He’ll Make Me Happy,” and the song that always make me feel simultaneously upbeat and introspectively nostalgic, “Together Again” (which made a brief welcome appearance in The Muppets). It also has one altogether forgettable song called “You Can’t Take No for an Answer,” sung by Dr. Teeth over the failed-pitch montage. It just has that awful early-80s style (though it sounds vaguely similar to the Peter Björn & John song “Second Chance”). I didn’t remember this song or the accompanying montage at all from the hundreds of childhood viewings. Frankly, I’m a little surprised I’m remembering it right now.

(By the way, I would be derelict in my duties as a Muppet evangelist if I did not bring to your attention that, as I was researching the history of Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem, I discovered that this existed.)

Another sequence that is notable for a variety of reasons is when Kermit and his human friend Jenny (Juliana Donald) are jogging through Central Park and being spied on by Miss Piggy, and Piggy has her purse stolen. The last time I saw this film, I must have been just old enough to recognize certain filmmaking techniques, because I remember that the sequence in which Miss Piggy is chasing her purse-snatcher on roller skates creeped me out. The reason is that in the wide shots with Piggy in pursuit the background, it’s obvious that she is a full-size human in full Piggy dress. I guess I find the idea of having an angry adult human dressed as Miss Piggy on roller skates chasing me to be fairly terrifying, though I’m willing to bet money it wouldn’t be the strangest thing Central Park has ever seen.

The Central Park scene features an appearance by two more of my personal favorites in the Muppet world, uppity hecklers Statler and Waldorf. In one of their greatest moments ever, they see “a frog and a pig… in love” and start barking and cat-calling. Finally, the tail end of the Central Park scene introduces, for the first time ever, the concept of the Muppet Babies, as Piggy has a fantasy song sequence featuring herself, Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie, Scooter, and Rowlf as babies in a nursery together. (Sadly, no Baby Animal yet to say Goooo bye-bye!… but we do get a foreshadowing even of that early on in the film when everyone decides to part ways.)

 

“Ma-ma, da-da, boop-boop, sha-wah-wah!”

 

The Muppets Take Manhattan is, as any good Muppet movie will be, full of cameos, including the aforementioned Dabney Coleman; director John Landis; Brooke Shields; Elliott Gould; Joan Rivers in a fun scene with Miss Piggy in which they apply copious amounts of cosmetics; Gregory Hines, who has a great scene trying to mediate an argument between Kermit and Piggy in Central Park; Liza Minnelli in the fantastic “whispering campaign” scene in an upscale restaurant; James Coco as a dog owner who puts Rowlf through the most humiliating moment of his life; Art Carney as the Broadway producer who finally agrees to finance the Muppets’ play; and even Ed Koch, who was mayor of New York City for most of the 80s. And I suppose this is not really a cameo, but Pete (Jenny’s father and the owner of Pete’s diner, and a fine mangler of the English language) is played by Louis Zorich, the Constable from the 1971 film classic Fiddler on the Roof.

 

“Wait a minute! Wait just a second! You mean just say what the product DOES? Why, no one’s ever tried that!”

 

There’s a lot of weak plotting going on here, most glaringly how characters always seem to know where to find other characters at any given moment except for the one time it’s important that they don’t for the sake of dramatic tension (and because the movie suffers from a little IITS), and that is when Kermit, having just gotten a deal to have his play produced on Broadway, runs into traffic, gets hit by a car, forgets who he his, and disappears into the concrete jungle with only two weeks till curtains up. During this time, nobody at the hospital calls the authorities about an amnesiac John Doe (they just give him clothes — since he was naked when they found him — and release him back into the wilds of Manhattan), nor do any of Kermit’s friends involve the authorities in their search for him.

This, of course, is the 30 years of wisdom in me talking. The kid in me could care less. But I try to always hold every narrative film to the same standard of quality of story and characters. Even though the plot is seriously lacking, however, I still care about the story, and that’s mostly because I care about the characters. The Muppets have always been very rich in character, and that allows me to overlook, or at least forgive, some weak plotting.

 

“That’s it! That’s what’s been missing from the show! That’s what we need! MORE frogs and dogs and bears and chickens and… and whatever!”

 

And the characters get fun individual subplots too, after they all go their separate ways:

Scooter gets a job in Cleveland tearing tickets at a B-movie house, where he runs into the Swedish Chef, who has a great bit reveling in the wonders of wearing 3D glasses, and Lew Zealand, who throws his signature boomerang fish during a showing of Attack of the Killer Fish 3D;

Fozzie tries to go into hibernation with a bunch of other bears but suffers from insomnia and is surprised to find that the cave is “co-ed” when a bear named Beth suggests snuggling;

Dr. Teeth & The Electric Mayhem get a gig as an Oompah band at a community hall in a town outside Pittsburgh;

Gonzo becomes a daredevil on the Lake Michigan, and as you’d expect, his death-defying feats don’t go so well — but you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Camilla and the chickens do their rendition of Tony Bennett singing the “William Tell Overture”;

and finally, in perhaps my favorite bit, Rowlf ends up in a degrading position managing a dog kennel in Delaware.

Scenes like these and many others are what make the Muppets the classics that they are, and what make The Muppets Take Manhattan a comedy classic despite its ultimately insignificant shortcomings. And all these new dogs and bears and chickens and things not only get to come back to Manhattan and appear in the climactic Broadway show, but they enrich the entire Muppet universe from that point on. Not that the Muppets were lacking up till that point, but these extras are just the ingredient needed for future Muppet productions.

 

 

One thing that leaves me perplexed at the end, though, is this: Are we to assume that Kermit and Piggy actually do get married at the end? If so, poor Kermit was bamboozled into it by a characteristically Machiavellian Miss Piggy. It is a great climactic scene though, featuring cameos by all your other favorite Muppets of the Muppet Show era as well as the gang from Sesame Street.

 

 

If I can leave you with one final thought, one pearl of wisdom, one timeless idiom that could potentially change your life, it is this (make sure your sound is turned way up though):

 

 

Yes, peoples is peoples. Thank you, Pete.

—–

Tom was once a mere temp worker in a shady laboratory until he was kidnapped by mad scientists and imprisoned on a satellite in outer space where he was forced to watch bad movies with a couple of sarcastic sentient robots. He escaped over a decade ago, yet still he sits alone in a darkened room watching bad movies, whispering wisecracks into the dark. His favorite films include City Lights, Casablanca, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Amélie, Stagecoach, and the Toy Story trilogy. He edits the Rant Pad and the Buried Cinema podcast.

The Old Toy Chest — Captain EO

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

Having been born in the early 1980s, I simply can’t remember a time when Michael Jackson’s presence wasn’t everywhere (except for these past two years, of course). I wasn’t a fan; in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to listen to his music when I was a kid. My mother found him disgusting, what with all the crotch-grabbing and whatnot, but since we had a TV in the house (yep, just one), being influenced by the man and his music was inescapable even for a sheltered kid like me.

As an adult, I’ve developed an appreciation for Jackson’s work. I’m still not what you’d call a fan, but I love certain songs of his, like “Billie Jean,” “Rock with You,” and “Smooth Criminal.” I have Thriller in my library, and I appreciate that Jackson pioneered the long-form music video with the title track of that album. But to this day, I’ve always kind of thought of him as Captain EO.

That's not a special effect on Michael's shoulder. That's the idea fairy that would whisper into his ear and drive him to do things.

Captain EO was probably the only Michael Jackson product I was allowed by my parents (begrudgingly, I’m sure) to embrace as a child; after all, it was the cool new thing at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and we were on vacation. Various Disney parks were the only places you could see the 17-minute short film — in the first example of “4D” (innovated by the film’s writer/producer Rusty Lemorande), in which the film is shot and exhibited in 3D and supplemented with in-theater effects to amplify the experience. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, with a score by James Horner and two new songs by Jackson, and featuring Anjelica Huston as the villainous Supreme Leader (though it’s never explained why the “leader” of the good guys is the villain), the film has a lot of pedigree.

I recently re-watched Captain EO, having seen it before only once in the 80′s. And I have to say… pedigree ain’t everything.

The film opens on a shot of a meteor spinning slowly through outer space toward the camera… IN 3D!!! Suddenly a laser blast reduces it to astro-dust and a quaint-looking spaceship flies into view. Once inside the ship, we find that it’s populated by various Muppet rejects. (This would have been a perfect venue for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. However, the Jim Henson Company had nothing to do with the production. Captain EO was released as a Disney parks attraction in 1986; the Walt Disney Company did not acquire the Muppets until 1989. Two years later, they unveiled Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney-MGM Studios, which itself was only two years old. It was another example of the Disney Imagineers’ pioneering “4D” technology, and is overall a much better film experience than our current subject.)

These pseudo-Muppets make a lot of noise until they are silenced by the entrance of our hero — Captain EO himself. How this captain came to have such a strange crew of small aliens and robots is anyone’s guess. Captain EO immediate commands the room with his boyish, almost whining, “Listen!”

Clearly inspired by H.R. Giger's Alien design. Later inspired the design of the Borg Queen. And so we are all connected in the great circle of sci-fi.

Michael Jackson really looks like he’s trying hard to act, like he’s aware every second that he’s in a movie. Actually, it’s more like he looks like he’s constantly thinking, “Woohoo, I’m in a cool science fiction movie! The Star Wars guy is sitting right over there! Eee-heee!” then does a twirl, and throws his jacket off his shoulders and then flips it back on again — only, you know, in his head. In the meantime, he’s squeakily commanding his crew. The arrival of enemy craft trying to shoot them down only makes his voice squeakier. Michael Jackson’s squeak-singing always annoyed me, though he was a great singer underneath it all. His line-readings, however…

Commander Bog shows up on some sort of holographic intercom, and the actor playing him, Dick Shawn (himself known more as a singer), manages to ham it up with just his face more than Pauly Shore ever could with his entire body. Bog commands the crew to complete their mission: to locate some homing beacon, find the Supreme Leader (again, why they need to find their own leader is never explained), and give her some mysterious “gift.”

There’s some blatant Star Wars rip-off scenes (Lucas is one of the few who can rip off his own movies) as EO’s ship somehow manages to out-fly all the enemy ships and literally land on the homing beacon. To make a 17-minute story short, the crew is kidnapped by a bunch of stormtroopers in a junkyard and taken to the Supreme Leader, who lives in a dark industrial complex of some sort and turns out to be a spider-like woman who drops out of the ceiling like one of the Alien aliens and sentences EO to 100 years of torture and his crew to death.

EO finally unveils his “gift” — and it turns out his “gift” is an on-the-spot music video for “We Are Here to Change the World.” Michael Jackson’s — uh, I mean, Captain EO’s — sheer awesomeness is enough to turn the Supreme Leader’s troops into groovy background dancers. After some poorly choreographed tussles with some tougher bad guys, EO goes back to dancing and finally uses the power of song to turn the Supreme Leader into Anjelica Huston. The ugly industrial setting melts into a bland paradise not unlike the Mount Olympus of the old Clash of the Titans.

Michael's "gift" to the Supreme Leader -- and, as we are meant to believe, to the world.

And EO and his crew dance off into the sunset.

I imagine a lot of this was more impressive on a big screen with 3D glasses on and special effects literally moving through the theater, but just as a film, it’s really cheesy. It’s a glorified music video, and not one of Jackson’s better, which is a pity considering it’s directed by the man who gave us The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. And it has some of the trippiest imagery this side of a David Lynch film.

My recollection of seeing Captain EO as a little boy is a mix of wonder and embarrassment — leaning much more heavily toward the embarrassment, mostly as a result of all the lascivious dancing and my mother sitting right there disapproving. Plus, I have a vague memory of being a little uneasy over the appearance and tone of the Supreme Leader. I remember the whole thing being very dark in tone, but of course at the time I liked the annoying little not-Muppets. What can I say, I was a kid in the 80s — I thought neon-colored baggy pants and slap bracelets were awesome.

Captain EO may not be a good film, but it does deserve to be remembered as a unique pop culture artifact. It’s definitely representative of its time and place, for better or worse. And though it is not currently available in any official capacity for home viewing, you can watch it in its entirety (albeit in boring old 2D) here.

Still hard to believe these three ever sat in a room together.

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The Old Toy Chest — Harry and the Hendersons

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

I was born in January 1982, five months before the release of E.T., a film that has a solid place in my Top 20 films of all time.  As a child, I loved E.T. and watched it many times, despite how much it scared me. It wasn’t E.T. himself that provided the nightmare fuel, but specifically his slow death from being separated from the healing powers of his home planet, turning a sickly white and eventually wheezing his dying breath, as well as the human response to his presence (government men invading Elliott’s house wearing faceless hazmat suits and quarantining both the alien and the boy — who is also slowly dying, by the way — in a claustrophobic, sterile field laboratory).

How could you not love this face?

My love for E.T. only deepened when I finally watched it again as an adult (or at least, as a college student). I understood for the first time the profound psychic connection that develops between the boy Elliott and E.T., who I realized for the first time is also only a child. I understood that it is this psychic bond that causes Elliott’s near-death experience when E.T. begins to die. Perhaps most importantly, I understood at long last that these initially faceless suits who terrified me as a child (and still carry an aura of fear about them even now) are, in a fresh departure from the conventions and clichés of the genre, not true villains but rather humans concerned about the possible negative effects of this alien’s presence, both on the planet and on the alien himself, and that they are thankfully led by a man who views E.T. with compassion, even if not understanding. (Of course, these people still try to stop the kids from helping E.T. escape and make it back to a rendezvous with his home spaceship.)

I also realized that those departures from the conventions and clichés of the genre are not really departures at all, because before E.T., the genre did not exist. Director Steven Spielberg and writer Melissa Mathison’s wonderful film created the genre — a fantasy genre defined by a fish-out-of-water plot in which some strange benevolent creature, by some accident, is separated from its home and becomes emotionally attached with a human (or human family) who must then fight to protect it after its presence is discovered by the rest of humanity — and humanity’s response is overwhelmingly one either of fear (because I do not understand it, I fear it, and therefore I must destroy it) or of exploitative greed (usually by government agents).

THIS face, however....

E.T. also, for better or worse, intensified the cross-promotional market saturation begun by George Lucas’s Star Wars films. In stores, in fast food restaurants, on billboards, all over television and radio (and eventually in pop-up ads), you would from now on see and hear a film being sold as stuffed animals, as Happy Meal toys, as action figures, as board games, as video games, in sweepstakes, yada yada yada, ad infinitum. Then of course, there were the genre films themselves. They were never as good as E.T., but some were decent and memorable in their own way, such as Harry and the Hendersons (benevolent Bigfoot finds himself in the city and bonds with a human family) and Short Circuit (benevolent sapient robot escapes government program and bonds with Ally Sheedy, Steve Guttenberg, and one very strange Fisher Stevens). Some were egregious rip-offs, such as Los nuevos extraterrestres (or as it is known to Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, Pod People). Most were forgettable, such as… well, there you go. And then there was one, at the very bottom of the barrel, called Mac and Me, which I have to confess to owning on VHS and watching almost as many times as I watched E.T. (Perhaps I’ll eventually review that turd of a film as well. For now, you can watch this sample lunacy on YouTube. You can also watch this great film criticism video, which eerily has a lot in common with everything I’ve just written.)

Harry and the Hendersons was one of my favorites when I was a child in the late 80s. My whole family seemed to enjoy it. We loved the humor, the heart, and of course, the happy ending. As a fanatical animal lover, I particularly connected with how gentle Bigfoot Harry was with critters (the way he tames the family dog was especially endearing). I watched Harry and the Hendersons so many times as a kid that, when I watched it recently after not having seen it for the better part of two decades, I remembered most of the beats, like hearing an old favorite song for the first time in years and still being able to sing along.

A little of that old E.T.-style loveability.

It is difficult, as an adult, to be objective about a film you loved so much as a child. As I watched Harry and the Hendersons this last time, I knew I was not watching a very good film. It’s cliché (sort of a given considering that whole genre thing); its humor tends to be noisy and in-your-face (and noisy, in-your-face humor, for me, is the cinematic equivalent of scratching my fingernails across a chalkboard or rubbing my hands on a carpet–I can literally feel my sanity slipping away); and its script is absolutely awful much of the time. As I think back, however, I cannot help but remember it in fondness. But that doesn’t excuse its issues.

There are three major weaknesses in this film, if I’m not being nitpicky. One is that the plotting, at least for the second half of the film, is some of the most contrived and arbitrary storytelling you’ll ever see. The way in which Harry ends up at the Hendersons’ house is believable enough — the family is out camping in the Northwest woods and in a moment of distraction hits the Bigfoot with the car, then dad decides to strap the “dead” creature to the roof because it’s a major discovery and might be worth a lot of money. Makes sense, perfectly fine. (What is such an elusive creature doing on a well-traveled road in the middle of the day? Like I said, if I’m not being nitpicky…)

The real problems begin when the family decides the best thing to do is to take Harry back to the forest, maybe halfway through the film. In one single scene, the Bigfoot acquires the name Harry in the most contrived way possible and then runs off into the wilderness of Seattle, presumably out of sorrow from the impending separation (which happens after all of, like, a day and a half). After that, it takes a long, long time for dad to take it upon himself to track Harry down. Yes, the growing interest in the creature’s presence in the city reaches a boiling point (as most of that interest involves gun-nuts out to shoot the creature for profit), which is decent motivation for dad to want to rescue Harry, but if he believes Harry being loose in the city is his fault (which it is), why doesn’t he go looking for him the night Harry disappears?

Another major problem is one of physics (without going all Star Trek on it). Much of the humor of the film derives from Harry being a large humanoid creature who doesn’t always know his own strength living in a house too small for him. A lot of these are easy jokes, but I can live with easy jokes as long as a film has other things going for it. What drives me nuts is the inconsistency — Harry breaking things when the script calls for it but not breaking much more fragile things when the joke is over. The scene that best exemplifies this is when Harry sits in the dining room (by throwing himself backward, which is already humor gone overboard) and crashes through the wood floor and into the basement. (I know from experience that even dropping a huge piece of furniture on the floor doesn’t cause nearly as much damage to the floor. Unless the Hendersons’ real problem is not a Bigfoot but termites.) Harry then pulls himself out of the hole by reaching up and slamming his arm down on the dining room table, and using it to pull himself back up. No damage to the table. He sits on a sofa, it cracks in half; he puts his full weight on the edge of a table — nothing.

The third major problem seems to be one of scripting and/or directing not aligning with actual performance, and this falls squarely on the villain, Jacques Lafleur. Actor David Suchet is actually a fairly intense actor, and he brings some of that intensity to his role as the hunter whose life goal is to bring down a sasquatch. But while he seems to be playing Lafleur with absolute seriousness, the folks behind the camera seem to be playing him for laughs. Occasionally this mismatch works, but for most of the film, it leaves me wondering if I’m supposed to be afraid of this guy or if he’s supposed to be more like comic relief. The nature of the character would suggest that fear is the appropriate response, but it’s difficult to maintain that when his competency shifts from one scene to the next, depending on whether the scene is supposed to call for a laugh or not — or, of course, to conveniently let Harry escape unscathed.

Other lesser gripes involve the family’s reaction to finding the Bigfoot very much alive and holding dad up against the wall by the neck (more bemusement than fear); how quickly the family becomes attached to Harry; and how trusting they are of this creature, even after I as a viewer am on board with the familial attachment — what I mean is, the filmmakers have thrown in our faces how Harry doesn’t know his own strength at the expense of the furniture and structural integrity of the house, yet it’s okay for the little boy to sleep on the floor right next to him. I’m not a Bigfoot, but I know how easily I could roll over and crush a living thing that’s a third my size. (In the same scene, the little boy is also sleeping next to the old man they just met, so…)

And then there is that great late 80s/early 90s family-film tradition of having the main character experience a groin-meets-solid-object collision. Nothing is quite so funny, nor quite so reflective of the “family comedy” genre, as watching a Sasquatch getting kicked in the nads.

Oh gosh, I forgot the scene where Harry is splayed for the camera.

Having said all that, I still like this movie. The talented cast includes the aforementioned David Suchet, John Lithgow as the dad, M. Emmett Walsh as his dad, and Don Ameche as the aforementioned old man. Ameche’s Dr. Wrightwood, a longtime Bigfoot believer who has grown jaded after years of disappointment, is actually a likable character, scoring one of the film’s best moments in the scene where he meets Harry (fulfilling his lifelong dream of seeing an actual Bigfoot) and, unable to contain his youthful enthusiasm, bellows, “Yaaa-hooooooo!” I know it sounds corny, but Ameche totally sells it. Boy, I miss Don Ameche. The film’s best casting decision, however, was Melinda Dillon. She’s played other, more memorable moms in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A Christmas Story, but she brings that same natural acting ability, which is full of wonderful surprises, to her role here and gives what is easily the film’s best performance. (On the other hand, there’s Lainie Kazan…)

The character of Harry is himself pretty wonderful in many ways (scripting inconsistencies aside). He is played, in a believable Sasquatch-suit, by Kevin Peter Hall, whose biggest claim to fame is in another film that came out the same year as Harry and the Hendersons – he played the title role in Predator, as well as in Predator 2 three years later. The pure physicality of his performances as both the Predator and as Harry is great — the way he walks, the way he stands, and, particularly in Harry’s case, the things he does with his arms and hands. The Harry performance would be incomplete, however, without the genius of Rick Baker and his crew of makeup and effects artists. Harry is one of of the best animatronic creations in the history of cinema, so at least Harry and the Hendersons has that superlative to be remembered by. Although occasionally creepy (and for this I put the blame more on the way the camera is used), the range of emotion in Harry’s face is pure movie magic.

Aside from these things, and amid all the cheesiness and pedestrian film techniques, the film has a big heart and a handful of truly inspired moments, and altogether it is still one that is worth going back to from time to time. It might even be fun to make a more in-depth analysis of the film’s merits and shortcomings at some point. It’s a film I’ll probably want to introduce to my own children, when I have some, especially before they stumble upon one of the many, much-lesser Bigfoot-themed films that followed in Harry’s wake. (See? Harry and the Hendersons launched its own spate of terrible rip-offs!) I’ll probably even sit them down and explain how this film is the result of an era of family-film-making that tried and failed to replicate the quality of a film that can never be replicated. Maybe I’ll even make them read this article. Then, when I feel they’ve grasped the seriousness of the situation, I’ll let them loose to watch this and whatever other middling-to-poor family fantasy fare they set their little sights upon.

Go, children, and enjoy…

... but always remember the best.

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