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).
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).
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.
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.
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…
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