SPECIAL FRIENDSHIPS: HUMAN CATS, DWARFS, IMAGINARY FRIENDS
Human cats, dwarfs, imaginary friends
Even now that we have discarded ninety percent of boyhood cinema’s most popular titles, the theme of special man/boy relationships on screen still remains larger than one might first suppose, and it would be impossible to discuss more than a handful of them here in appropriate detail. A comprehensive list would run to many hundreds of titles, even discounting the huge output of silent cinema, Indian cinema, Hong Kong cinema, or Soviet bloc cinema, all of which are generally ignored by English language film guides and websites. Continental and Scandinavian children’s cinema contains many such stories but again, English-speaking audiences are too lazy to concern themselves with “foreign language” films, and these are rarely released in the UK or US unless horrendously dubbed, which is a costly process. By comparison with their continental peers, British and American children are raised on a hugely impoverished diet of films and TV material — all of it written to the lowest common denominator — made expressly for their consumption. The best of continental films encourage children to think for themselves, the typical American kids’ movie trains them to be obedient conformists, avid consumers. Again, the point I made at the outset, there is always a covert agenda at work, and children are not the most sophisticated of viewers. This makes them easy targets for the self-appointed “social engineering” types. And companies with merchandise to sell.
The Special Friendship arises in many unexpected forms, such as “THE LITTLE PRINCE” (74), where a small boy from a distant planet befriends a pilot stranded in the desert, or (one of the longer titles known to the Asher Archive) “UNO SCERIFFO EXTRATERRESTRE … MOLTO TERRESTRE, POCO EXTRA” (79), in which a small boy from a distant planet (Cary Guffey) teams up with sheriff Bud Spencer. It would include “TIME BANDITS” (81), Terry Gilliam’s most appealing fantasy, in which a small boy (Craig Warnock cute as a button) takes a tour of his heroes of history in the company of renegade dwarfs who have stolen a map from god. If we could be certain what gender the tortoise was, we would have to include “E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL” (82). BBC Critic Barry Norman lamented there was only one genuine love story released in the cinema that year, and this was between a small boy (Henry Thomas) and … an aged bug-eyed thing.
The first two-thirds of “E.T.” are a joy, filled with Spielberg’s fond empathy for and warm observation of US kid culture. Sadly it all comes apart at the seams in the final act, with every emotion register turned to the gushing maximum, every sequence milked for the last drop of teary-eyed, huggy sentimentality. Subtlety and nuance are alone, afraid and six million light years from home. Still, Henry Thomas is a perfect delight as Elliot (giving a career best performance in his debut role – every actor’s nightmare). Several instantly forgotten films were rushed out to exploit his brief status as the most famous child on the planet – “CLOAK AND DAGGER”, “MISUNDERSTOOD”, “FROG DREAMING” – but the ghost of Elliot was not to be found in them. Thomas was later to be seen, catastrophically miscast, as the young Norman Bates in “PSYCHO IV – THE BEGINNING” (90). Look how the mighty are fallen.
The genre would have to include “WHISKERS” (Canada 97), where a small boy wakes to find a strange man in his bedroom who used to be his pet cat, and “BOGUS” (96 — I never promised they’d all be worth seeing), where a small boy (Haley Joel Osment) chews over life’s down-sides with imaginary friend Gerard Depardieu. And “NORTH” (94), in which a young boy (Elijah Wood) goes parent-shopping on a world tour in the company of his private guardian angel (Bruce Willis in a pink bunny costume), and “SKELLIG” (2009), where Bill Milner is wafted aloft in the arms of rancid angel Tim Roth (and some decidedly cheesy effects work). It would include “LITTLE MONSTERS” (89, a shameless clone of “BEETLE JUICE”), in which the always appealing Fred Savage, 13, on furlow from his butter-wouldn’t-melt role in TV’s “The Wonder Years”, learns how to be a naughty boy from a horny devil who lives under his bed.
Fair to say it’s a mixed bag then. And where precisely do we make the cut? All of the antics in Hollywood’s 1935 “A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM” (think Shakespeare by way of Busby Berkeley and you’re nearly there) were wrought because angry fairy king Oberon wants to steal a pretty Indian boy from his queen Titania, and the agent of all his mischief is a 14-year old Mickey Rooney squealing and squawking as Puck. Rooney’s performance is so deliriously over the top he eclipses even James Cagney, hamming for all he’s worth as Bottom. Does that qualify in the Special Friendship stakes? Probably not, but it’s a ripe curiosity all the same. Rooney broke his leg during principal photography, so a good deal of the shots feature his hindquarters obscured by foliage. Tricksy sprite.
An even tricksier sprite, though at least sober, was David Bennent’s “Gump” in the ill-starred Ridley Scott foray into the fantasy genre, “LEGEND” (85). Scott was and is a master of production design, his cinematography often exquisite, but the tawdry business of a strong plot or good character development sometimes elude him. “LEGEND” was a major disappointment (Kubrick had a similar misfire with “BARRY LYNDON” (75), though it wears better) and a major studio fire during principal shooting didn’t help matters. Tim Curry’s prince of darkness is terrific, and moments here or there convey the true Grimm Brothers magic Scott was reaching for, but epic quests do need to be a bit epic, and many sequences fall flat, possibly because the film was torn between appealing to continental sensibilities and mainstream American ones.
Young boys don’t get much of a showing in sword-and-sorcery cinema, obsessed as it is with scantily-clad maidens and rippling biceps. They’re generally confined to those irritating “boyhood prologue” sequences, introducing the hero “in vitro” before testosterone has given him the wherewithal to bang wicked heads together. So the casting of David Bennent (actually 19, but looking and sounding 12) in a major role – also scantily clad – was running against type. Bennent is chiefly remembered as the strange shrieking homunculus of “DIE BLECHTROMMEL” (“The Tin Drum”, 79) and he has something of the same manic intensity as Gump, escorting ingénue hero Tom Cruise in his ho-hum battle to defeat the Dark Side. Gump, although he has the same Puckish appearance as Mickey Rooney, is clearly the senior partner with Tom Cruise, and so the archetype he’s playing is actually that of Gandalf, or Obiwan Kenobi. He is the inscrutable mentor figure.
A more characteristic boy for the genre came in the sumptuous shape of Josh Milrad as a disinherited boy prince roaming abroad in disguise when he meets “THE BEASTMASTER” (82). Escorted by a burly negro protector (John Amos), he latches onto the loincloth tails of hero Marc Singer, is injured, rescued and restored to his throne (just as Tarzan had occasion to do for the odd boy king). And the hero transpires to be his own lost half-brother. All manly, mindless, blade-swishing stuff, but “BEASTMASTER” was a notch above the “CONAN THE BARBARIAN” template it was so clearly ripping off because director Don Coscarelli’s fantasy imagination ran to a more bizarre, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not strain, as he had ably demonstrated in the cult hit “PHANTASM” (79) – which also featured a very strong central man-and-boy duo. “PHANTASM” was less a genuine horror film in the Stephen King vein, and more a creepy, preposterous black comedy, “Eerie, Indiana” on Prozac. “LEGEND”, “BEASTMASTER” and “PHANTASM” are all interesting also-rans in the Special Friendships stakes, but in the latter two the men and boys are brothers, in the first one the boy is an elf, and probably old enough to be drawing his pension.
“THE INDIAN IN THE CUPBOARD” (95), a superior entry in this fantasy friends sub-genre, eschewed the noisy razzle-dazzle effects of “JUMANJI” (released the same year) for a simple tale about a 9-year old boy (Hal Scardino) whose miniature action figures come to life in his bedroom, replete with all their life memories and “ishooz”. It has of course its own shopping list of subtextual messages (chiefly our responsibility to be sensitive to the feelings of others) but these are less gratuitous and anodyne than the rule for US “family” films, and the result is a pleasingly understated story about a gentle boy (not too stridently self-centred, not too candy-box pretty) displaying tact and compassion for the smaller beings in his care (get it?).
And, from the standpoint of the analysis I’m making here, it has an intriguing “rite of passage” coda. Little Bear, at the moment he is spirited into Omri’s bedroom, was escorting his own nephew into the woods to spend a season living off his own resources before returning to the tribe as a man. When Omri and Little Bear finally take their leave of one another, the indian adopts the boy as his honorary nephew, at which Omri is visibly moved. Inevitably, much deference is paid to the dignity of indian culture – Omri’s teacher waxes humble about the U.S. constitution being “modelled on the Iroquois code” (I doubt that very much) – but at the same time Little Bear is allowed to remonstrate with the boy for offering to do the cooking “like a woman”. “You’re so old-fashioned” Omri retorts, redundantly. Political correctness speak with forked tongue – we must honour the traditions of oppressed peoples, it seems, but not to the extent of respecting their strict differentiation between gender roles. We will have our cake and eat it.
Pity poor William Dix, punished for some family mischief or other by getting cast as the token kid in “DOCTOR DOLITTLE” (67). He tags patiently along after Rex Harrison and (shudder) Anthony Newley, through circus and shipwreck and giant pink snail, given precious little to say and nothing whatever to do. He’s just parked here and there in the corner of shots like one of the props, and if that weren’t indignity enough for a perky 12-year old boy (seen to far better effect in “THE NANNY” (65)), it’s a ghastly musical to boot. In such “family films”, children themselves are mere ballast on the screen. Other examples are not hard to identify. The Disney back catalogue is waist-deep in them. It was a Special Friendship alright (Dix has no reason to be with Harrison or Newley, he just is) but it’s not very special to look at. Samantha Eggar, for her sins, is the obligatory woman thrown into the mix to prevent it becoming a man/boy/man kind of adventure. She looks as uncomfortable as Dix, almost.
Or pity poor Michael Caine, floundering his way through yet another abysmal script as the bankable lead of Peter Benchley’s “THE ISLAND” (80). Writer sets out to investigate mysterious goings-on in the Bermuda Triangle with toothsome languid son in tow (Jeffrey Frank). Imagine then his horror to discover a whole nest of time warp buccaneers living out their 18th century ways in the midst of trendy now, and shielded from discovery by mad anthropologist Frank Middlemass. Imagine his dismay when fickle son gets promptly adopted by pirate chief David Warner (to reinvigorate the in-bred crew), and, christened “Two-Barb”, settles cosily into his rascally murderous new life. The central “Lost World” premise did hold a glimmer of interest, but the film plays out as a mundane and tasteless action adventure which doesn’t appear to have noticed pirates are invariably box office poison (at least until Disney met Johnny Depp). The subtext about son betraying dad to cast in his lot with these scurvy cut-throats – displacing in the process a less photogenic cabin boy, who then seeks his revenge – is worth a low chuckle or two, but the film is reaching for the most feeble-minded of audiences, so (oblivious of the scurrilous parallels) it focuses instead on Caine being employed as a fertile stud by one of the captive pirate women. There are Special Friendships too among the flotsam and jetsam of cinema, but you do need to hold your nose when dredging for them.