Disney's remake of The Absent Minded Professor is a special-effects extravaganza that is largely an excuse to sell a lot of Flubber toys this Christmas. Already on the docket is Dancing Flubber, a plastic toy that jiggles to music (or shouting); a Flubber mouse-pad with green goo inside a transparent cover; a Flubber pen set with green goo that leaks out of the attached beakers; and, of course, the bouncing green goo itself, just waiting to get stuck in the carpet or in the dog's fur.
The Flubber remake will appeal to three-year-olds, like my friend's son. That's its target market. Those of us who remember Fred MacMurray bouncing off the walls in the 1961 version and dreamed of Flubberized shoes that would turn our leaping into soaring will be sorely disappointed, however. Directed by Les Mayfield, the new version is overwhelmed by special effects, which is the fate of so many kiddie flicks these days.
When I called up the Flubber website to show my seven-year-old god-daughter what the neo-Flubber looks like, she was amazed at all that available merchandise, each with its "click here to order" button. "Gee," she sighed. "The whole world wants to sell you something." Ah, the wisdom of children. Her three-year-old brother was busy trying to voice-activate the Dancing Flubber I had brought him. He found that he could accomplish that by screaming, "Dance, Flubber!" which he did incessantly, until the cat took a swipe and knocked it to the ground.
John (Home Alone) Hughes wrote the screenplay, a fact so immediately apparent that you don't need to wait for the credits to see who's responsible for the rampant slapstick and mayhem. Hughes, as you may or may not remember, is also the culprit behind last fall's remake of 101 Dalmatians, which turned that cartoon classic into a live-action pratfall.
Never one to veer from a formula, this time around Hughes has the bad guys getting hit in the head with Flubberized golf balls and bowling balls reaching speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. In this film, they end up with mere bumps on their heads. "In real life, they'd be dead," I kept reminding my god-daughter, so she wouldn't try that trick at home with her brother.
In other scenes, characters fall out of windows, get catapulted into bleachers, hit their heads on steel beams and have entire laboratories blow up in their faces, all with very little ill effect. The most ridiculous gag, though, comes when the really rotten bad guy swallows some Flubber, suffers terrible indigestion and intestinal distress, then shoots it out his pants. It's Hughes all the way.
Robin Williams, who doesn't have to stretch much to look constantly befuddled and bewildered, plays the absent-minded Professor Brainard, the genius who invents a revolutionary new source of energy (no, not cold fusion). To save his financially troubled Medfield College, he creates the miraculous flying rubber with a mind of its own. The gelatinous polymer actually upstages Williams. When it subdivides, it's like watching the Jell-O version of the June Taylor dancers. One lavish dance number has the Flubbettes dancing in the fountain and up a staircase of National Geographics against a backdrop of palm trees and fountains.
|Lots of jiggle, but no place to go: Robin Williams stars in the kid-marketing frenzy that is Flubber. |
Marcia Gay Harden
As if the Flubber weren't enough for today's attention-impaired kids, the remake adds a floating computer named Weebo that looks like a flying Big Mac and also has a mind of its own. (The 1961 version had a dog as the professor's sidekick.) Where Disney used to anthropomorphize animals, the studios are now making the machinery human.
Weebo (voiced by Jodi Benson) falls in love with her creator and tries to thwart his marriage plans to the college president (Marcia Gay Harden) by putting the wrong time for the wedding in his day planner. In one scene, the lovesick computer turns on the desktop computer, creates a ghost-like human version of herself and tries to touch the sleeping professor. But the biggest yuck comes when she creates Weebette, a junior burger merging the qualities of herself and the professor. It's their love child! Talk about a wacky subplot.
In writing the screenplay for the remake, Hughes claimed he wanted it to be a thrill ride that represented the world of 1997. Yes, it does represent the effects-laden, action-driven world of live-action filmmaking in 1997, just like his Home Alone 3, coming soon to a theater near you. But that's nothing to brag about. Overly reliant on the slapstick, with characters being constantly assaulted in the most cartoonish ways imaginable, this Flubber is definitely a no-brainer.
But being products of the 1990s, today's kid will lap it up. And, be warned, with holiday marketing schemes well underway, kiddies will want those Flubber products as well. You might want to make a trip to the video store and see how they like the original instead of battling the throngs at the local six-plex.
And while we're on the subject of screwball kid's movies, what's up with Anastasia, the 20th Century Fox cartoon musical that takes some nonsensical liberties with history? The story of a czar executed with his family during the Russian Revolution hardly seems the stuff of cartoons. This one follows the travails of Anya, the Romanov who was widely conjectured to have escaped the bullets that downed her family. (Recent forensic studies shows that Anastasia was indeed massacred with her family).
In this retelling, a trainwreck kills her family, and all the problems of state are blamed on the Evil Rasputin, who put a curse on the family (he has an albino bat as a sidekick). Anastasia survives, has amnesia, tries to remember her royal origins, and falls in love. It may be an enjoyable animated feature, but history it's not.