Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Regressive Childhood Classics Series (Super Mario Bros, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, Ernest Goes To Jail, more)

We live decadently in each others shared childhood relations. including bad movies.

"Kids movie" is a condescending, chaotic and false label but for the purposes of this experiment, whatever. Being that the gulf between "adult" and "child" fare has closed to an imperceptible PG-13 crack wherein the difference between a 13 year old and a 30 year old's praise of The Dark Knight is nonexistent.

In the 80s and 90s, ginormous studio budgets were thrown at what would've been second tier productions starring TV actors just ten years earlier. In the heady special effects boom of those decades, any half baked fantasy premise was green lit until eventually the yuppie puppies were sufficiently retarded.

In the spirit of embracing retardation some friends and I embarked on a journey of mindless self indulgence, revisiting the subcategories of children's fare which never qualified them classics - shameless corporate ventures, special effects boondoggles, dollar theater programmers - movies we might only have enjoyed thoughtlessly as children but had never seen since, and those that escaped our consumption across the table...

Super Mario Bros (1993, Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton)

I saw this three times in the theater. Not being allowed to own a Nintendo had something to do with it. The dream cast of Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo is indicative of the tone where anything weird was "in" for kids. Especially slime and dinosaurs, set to incessantly upbeat and adventurous Alan Silvestri music and directed with pop-cyberpunk love by the co-creators of Max Headroom. They blew a ton of cash on this one and the production is covered in spikes, sparks and Beyond Thunderdome inspired costume design. Those who say the whole enterprise of replicating video game fantasy in live action by changing everything are missing the point, there are about a million fleeting references to the games and occasionally witty moments from Bill & Ted co-writer Ed Solomon's script doctoring. This was the first video game based movie ever and it bombed but its still a lot more of a real movie than its ghetto progeny, all the way up to Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li.

Jingle All The Way (Brian Levant, 1996)

SCHWARZENNEGER. SINBAD. A late period entry from the era of big and would-be big 90s summer comedies, and late in the time my friends Ryan and Matt were going to bad movies on purpose after school. This was the most recent title we were willing to venture. Cody remarked you could occasionally see the spark going out in Sinbad's eyes at the end of some scenes as he realizes his career is over. Phil Hartman has a funny supporting role to remind he could make reading the phone book funny, and he's dead. There are also pre-9/11 jokes about Sinbad using mail bombs and a pre- ah, they'll keep doing it - toy store trampling to death joke. The trendiness of basing a faux-zany big name comedy vehicle around the Tickle-Me-Elmo stories in the news is pretty innocuous, but this is the kind of movie that squanders the goodwill of Phil Hartman and an animatronic killer reindeer chasing Arnold with an extended cameo by Jim Belushi.

The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (Rodney Amateau, 1987)

Taking a giant step back in time to another milestone of child targetting corporate tie-ins, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie means a lot to me because Garbage Pail Kids once did. I found out about them by accident walking past the lockers of the older kids at my first K-12 school, the stickers long worn inside the doors. With nothing else to go on (they had been out of stores for years) I began making lists of the kids' names as I found them out, and obsessively haunting every garage sale and collectibles store I could, but never to any luck. When the Internet and Ebay arrived I finally satiated my desires and haven't hungered since, but years before that, all I had was The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, appearing like a beacon in the kids/family section of my local video store and giving me the shot of disturbing GPK weirdness I so needed.

The movie itself resembles a hybrid of Steven Spielberg and Troma. A plucky young kid (Spielberg) is terrorized by bullies at least 20 years older than him (Troma) and finds the titular kids in a magic garbage pail (Troma) which if the opening credits are to be believed, come from space (Spielberg.) The can is owned by a wise magical old man in his curio shop of mystic wonders (Spielberg.) When the fun-loving kids are set loose, normal society is in for a "heap" of wacky trouble! With early-Troma New Jersey aesthetics and only slightly less cheap production values.

What most people take from this movie is the unforgettably ugly kids themselves. The permutation from Cabbage Patch Kids parodies to live action versions of said parodies isn't flattering to the midgets whose heads are encased inside, including my favorite little person actor Phil Fondacaro (Troll, Seinfeld) as "Greaser Greg." Ryan couldn't get through the scariness of these kids as a kid, but my love of GPK must have overrode my hair-trigger for nightmare material as a kid, even if the makeup strikes me today as a bit prescient of Chucky. The film's sole disturbance to me as a kid seems a lot less unsettling now - the sudden 3rd act appearance of a "State Home For The Ugly" which rounds up society's misfits for freaking extermination (Troma) and of course locks up the GPKs before they're rescued by the plucky young kid (Spielberg.)

Like Super Mario Bros, The Garbage Pail Kids Movie has the dubious distinction of being the first cross-marketed movie of its kind. However, Topps Trading Cards more than made up for it with their second trading card property feature film, Mars Attacks!

Mac and Me (1988, Stewart Raffill)

watch this movie or the kids at ronald mcdonald's house will starve!

Speaking of Spielberg, this title plagiarizes E.T. so shamelessly you'd swear it fell into public domain. Corporate sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonald's probably prevented any lawsuits and their brand is all over this one, especially the latter. Not only is the expressionless Mysterious Alien Creature puppet unofficially monikered after the famous sandwich, his identically facially expressed alien family (whose body suits makes them look like burn victims) but at a critical juncture the healing power of Coca-Cola itself nurses them all back to health. Sounds funny, yet the blatant commercialism is never omnipresent to the point of hilarity and the stupid kids-meet-alien is never anything beyond maudlin boredom. Ryan and Matt and I were tricked into this mess by this scene and the promise that there would be more of the same. Turns out regressive childhood classics have to come from your actual childhood.

Ernest Goes To Jail (1990, John R. Cherry III)

Ahhh, the palette cleanser. Coming off of Mac and Me this was exactly what was needed by all, a deceivingly dopey old fashioned comedian working at what I considered his prime in childhood and remain decided. Jim Varney's Ernest is the last old fashioned matinee icon and entertainer of our time, developing tirelessly a weirdly endearing persona from film to film while working with the same principal crew and delighting...young, not exactly young and old. Pee-Wee Herman filled that gap in the same period. The dark side of this workmanship was Police Academy, just for reference.

At a lean hour and 20, the plotting moves things briskly while balancing the star performance as well as any 1940s series of comedy shorts. If god was in heaven and theaters were still venues for cartoons and three stooges shorts, this would have been 20 minutes only. Varney and oft-director Cherry create a lot of setups which build until paying off with a bank sequence ten minutes long and methodically silly, and forever imprinted on my mind watching upstairs at Grandma's house.

If one has not seen in childhood and needs more highfalutin legitimate praise, Varney's evil twin role of his own doppelganger is effortlessly suave and convincing.

Stay Tuned (1992, Peter Hyams)

Finally and flatly the series ends for now with what Hollywood calls a "high concept" comedy, Ryan's personal recommendation is mostly cheerfully stupid, having fun with itself and the typically overblown budget even when the viewer doesn't. There's some aspects I would've loved at the right age - jumping into interdimensional portals, a cartoon hell at war with cartoon heaven, the Chuck Jones cartoon segment - but the script never gets any cleverer than the fact John Ritter is in a series of television parodies.

There's not a lot of "family fare" that explicitly uses Hell (and conspicuously without Satan) as a plot device. What, George Burns in Oh God! You Devil? It's like Waxwork II: Lost In Time except so family friendly that Jeffrey Jones and Eugene Levy are the bad guys.

The kid in this kids movie is a token banana to Ritter. How many other kid movies can claim not a single scene between parents and children until the very end? Like superhumanly clever 90s movie kid he wears gigantic glasses while hacking into things with computers and looking like a gigantic nerd with his neon safety helmet, day-glo bicycle, and maxi-radical overcooked exclamations, dude!! Jeffrey Jones exclaiming "Time to rock n' roll!" before zapping himself into a television with early 90s CGI morphing effects tickles the same primitive kid impulse nerve.

There's one genuinely uncanny scene in the whole involving the annoying kid and a satellite dish...Peter Hyams also directed Outland which is supposed to be good...

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