Tag Archives: Mac and Me

Adaptations of songs and such: Singin’ in the Rain vs. everything else

By Nathanael Griffis

I love Singin’ in the Rain and little else needs to be said, about anything. This masterpiece of film, not just musicals, revolutionized how dance, music, and film coalesce, but it was adapted from a single song. Now, that makes sense with a musical, but if you hear the story, it simply shouldn’t be so successful. Gene Kelly thought the song, written by Arthur Freed and composed by Nacio Herb Brown in 1929 (the original rights of the song are actually unclear, but these two men have the clearest claim), would make for a good dance routine. He got in touch with MGM and started writing songs. With no plot to speak of, but a whole slew of songs, they started production. Somehow, sheer talent and enjoyment with the craft of filmmaking and dancing gave us the best musical ever, a beautiful romance, and a striking critique of the changing landscape of film. This is, of course, my opinion, but it’s right and the American Film Institute agrees as it’s number five on their top 100 movies of all time, so I win.

Gene Kelly was actually really thirsty. This had nothing to do with love.

The thing is that this will probably never happen again, and no one should try to make a film that way, but they have, as Staying Alive (the sequel to the decent Saturday Night Fever) proves, and it is awful. Let’s forget it ever happened. We can’t really count Sweet Home Alabama since it doesn’t fully utilize the song or use it at all really except in the trailer. Songs might make good material for adaptations for musicals, but Hollywood is willing to go stranger. They’ll adapt, toys, theme park rides, video games, and restaurants.

The main issue is that frequently, and let’s use toys as an example, the studio is only concerned with money. So, in the case of toys, it’s mostly just a chance to reinvigorate merchandising, hence why they have no problem hiring Michael Bay. Now, let me say this–he’s made the best toy adaptation yet in the first Transformers, although that his competition is G.I Joe at this point isn’t saying much. Does Hasbro care? Nope, they made money, because I was stupid and wanted to see things explode, and now kids think it’s cool and will buy toys. Maybe the toys are cool, so that’s a good thing, right? No, because it encourages films like the upcoming Battleship, and the Stretch Armstrong project which keeps trying to get off the ground. Thankfully the Ouija board movie was scrapped, but Monopoly still looms out there. If you want a really strange trip into this category, go check out the 1987 film The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, which was based on a satirical set of trading cards that played off the popularity of the Cabbage Patch Kids. The concept of the Garbage Pail Kids is as a funny collectors item–they’re worth a lot now actually–but as a film, it’s basically meant to generate press for the cards and the disturbing toys.

Um... yeah, that was weird movie.

Now, sometimes a film like Clue comes along and uses the toy concept to good effect, and honestly I haven’t lost all hope for Monopoly, because a story about money-grubbing companies snatching everything up could work, but doubtful. Still, who’d have ever thought that Hollywood would try to adapt animatronic rides into film? Of course our mind thinks of Pirates of the Caribbean, but you have to go back further to a project that was initially in Gore Verbinski’s hands, ironically. Mission: Space at EPCOT, which might as well be called Mission to Mars, is about, you guessed it, a mission to mars. Gore Verbinski thought this ride made a simple premise for a sci-fi thriller. He rounded up Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins, and Don Cheadle, the budget inflated, and Brian De Palma out of nowhere became interested, and poor Gore Verbinski was ousted (then proceeded in an act of transference to inflict The Mexican upon the viewing public).

Of course Verbinski would later go onto direct the highly successful Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which is a wonderful pirate adventure, that adapts the ride by basically using the song and a dog with a key. And that should have been the blueprint for how to adapt rides, make a fun adventure or comedy that uses the title. We were given hope. Disney responded by gifting us with The Country Bears and digging the knife deeper with the Pirates sequels and The Haunted Mansion.

If it seems like they don’t care about the quality of the film they make, it’s because they don’t. It is all about merchandising. Thankfully, ride adaptations have all but been abandoned, because only Pirates was successful. The studio thought to themselves that people will see it because it has an audience, which is something they’ve been doing with video games for awhile now. Tron is almost the first video game adaptation, and in some ways it might be the best, but it’s not based on an actual game. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in my opinion, is the best, but it’s also not based on any particular video game. If you go by Rotten Tomatoes, the best is Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Why are video game movies so atrocious? Because they don’t give a crap about story. It is about money, and it’s our fault.

Still hard to believe this inspired an Oscar-nominated performance.

I’m playing Resident Evil and think, hey, this could make a good movie. Somehow I forget the ridiculous plot, awful dialogue, and repetitive nature of gaming. Gaming is an interactive experience. Stories are getting better (see Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, BioShock, and Mass Effect, and these games may have films upcoming) but if we have to pander to fans of the game the film will fall flat. Fans want these movies done right, or so we claim, but I still saw Max Payne. Why? Because I’m stupid and I wanted to see what they would do with it. I had no expectations it would be good, but I still fed them my money, and they responded with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. As proof that it’s all about money, instead of finding a Persian actor, Disney went with Jake Gyllenhaal, because he’s a more recognizable face, plain and simple. He can be marketed. Saïd Taghmaoui, Amr Waked, and Alexander Siddig cannot (and also Omar Sharif is too old).

Hollywood will do anything if they think they can make money on it, even to the point of ripping off E.T. because McDonald’s wants to sell more hamburgers. There’s a simple way to solve this problem: don’t give them your money. Films that are built around merchandizing are going to be bad, because they’re adapting nothing into nothing. There is a rare gem here and there, but overall it’s a dangerous, sad, pathetic road that we as viewers keep getting suckered into.

And so with all my venom exhausted, I have finished my series on adaptations. Maybe not on a positive note, and truthfully, it’s more of a rant than anything else, but this is the Rant Pad, so it makes sense. Over these eight articles I’ve found myself wondering if I can somehow define what is the perfect way to adapt something. The answer is there is no perfect way and there are no rules. It seems to have more to do with the intentions and the talent surrounding an adaptation. If the film is made simply because there is a rabid fan base that wants it, quality will probably falter. It takes, like with any film, an entire group around it developing and creating a work of excellence. If I can leave you with one piece of advice, don’t see a film simply because you liked the original production (lest The Last Airbender be repeated). Demand something more of your adaptations. Money drives the buisness, so don’t give them your money unless they earn it.

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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