Robert Zemeckis: The Stranger The Better

Film

These are  certain left-field mid-budget movies which are slightly too clever to ever reach wider audiences. I suspect that in years to come ‘Jojo Rabbit’ will live on in this ‘Brilliant Singular Vision’ category. It’s often possible to find terrific scenes in the most wrong-headed films. I worked on the ghastly ‘Howard The Duck’, which was censored in the UK because it was ostensibly a children’s film containing interspecies sex jokes, including a scene with Howard and his duck condom. Yet villain Jeffrey Jones was hysterical in the film, as was the go-motion creature at the climax. Gems can lurk in dross.

The Norwegians made a computer-animated film about a heroin-addicted circus elephant, an English language version of which was prepared by Simon Pegg, but the most deranged and wrong star-filled films must include ‘The Favour, the Watch and the Very Big Fish’ and the appalling, unreleasable ‘Where Is Parsifal?’ (above).

Why this column now? I was sorting out old boxes of DVDs (just to re-catalogue them, you understand) and kept bumping into old Robert Zemeckis films. Now there’s a director who knew a thing or two about films which were a tad too clever, because he directed quite a few of them before becoming lost in CGI nonsense. ‘Used Cars’ and ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ were undeserved flops, well worth watching again. As for the others…

Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

It began as ‘Who Censored Roger Rabbit?’, very loosely based on Gary K Wolf’s 1981 novel about murders in Toontown in 1947. Toons are animated characters, stars in their own right, who are cruelly exploited in Hollywood, and Eddie (Bob Hoskins) is a washed-up alcoholic detective investigating them. The film is packed with sharp one-liners and knowing visual jokes – so many that it’s impossible to catch them all in one viewing. Major studios agreed to lend their characters to the film with (in some cases) stipulations on how those characters were portrayed; for example, Disney’s Donald Duck and Warner’s Daffy Duck appear as equally talented duelling pianists, and Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny share a scene. Deals on other intellectual properties fell through so there’s no Popeye, Tom & Jerry or Casper.

Animation genius Richard Williams worked on it to help subsidise his doomed project ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’. Gary K. Wolf filed a lawsuit in 2001 against the Walt Disney Company for monies owed, and eventually won (see every writer’s story passim).

The film touches on minority prejudice and McCarthyism A sequel script and development plans have long existed for Roger’s further exploits, but Zemeckis believes that under the present draconian rule of Disney it will never be made. Adult themes can no longer survive in Disney’s infantilised world.

Death Becomes Her

An impatient Meryl Streep asks her husband, ‘Can you just not breathe?’ This is a knowing satire on waning celebrity and vanity starring Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis and Isabelle Adjani that uses slapstick as well as cynical wit to unsettling effect. Streep is the fading star (her stage number ‘Me!’ is a textbook recreation of awful 1970s theatre) and Hawn the overweight dumped writer who both discover that time can be turned back – but there’s a catch that Streep only discovers after drinking Adjani’s creepy elixir (‘Now a warning?’) – they’ll be eternally youthful so long as they keep their bodies in good condition. At this point I’m thinking Gwyneth Paltrow. Cue special effects that still look good because they’re so simple. But the real interest for me is the poisonous Faustian script. David Koepp and Martin Donovan also wrote the extraordinary ‘Apartment Zero’, in which a devil/messiah figure comes to stay with Colin Firth and divides a Buenos Aires apartment building (that film inspired a movie game we still play on Twitter).

1941

‘1941’ remains a big budget oddity, although Zemeckis only scripted it. Very clearly an homage/mash-up of ‘It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ and ‘The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming’, this tale of panic in a small town that’s sighted a Japanese submarine should have been a huge hit but is genuinely strange, incontinent with ideas and paced in a state of fever-pitch shouty hysteria featuring, in one scene, a ventriloquist’s dummy on a big wheel. There are plenty of bizarre in-jokes peppered throughout the film, including John Belushi briefly dressed as Marlon Brando in ‘The Godfather’. And there’s a fight in this swing club.

Why should you bother? Because near-misses are often more fun than hits – which is why there are no Star Wars reviews on this site.

9 comments on “Robert Zemeckis: The Stranger The Better”

  1. John Howard says:

    Morning.. Loved all of the above Zemeckis films with particular fondness for 1941 & Death Becomes Her.
    Speaking of Gwyneth, I hear the aroma candle named “This Smells Like my Vagina” being sold on her Goop web site has sold out. A snip at 50 odd quid. Some strange people out there.

  2. Rich says:

    It’s Isabella Rossellini in ‘Death Becomes Her’.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Roger Rabbit is a favourite here because the story about the fate of the Red Cars is apparently true. It’s probably about time to watch it again.

  4. Peter Dixon says:

    How do you know it really smells like her vagina? Advertising Standards need to investigate. As consumers we need to have a guarantee of authenticity backed up by independent experts. I for one wouldn’t like to be duped into buying a named product that smells like someone else vagina. We need transparency, consistency and probably a certificate of authenticity.
    Meanwhile, I suggest Elton John’s ‘Candle In The Wind’ as a possible theme tune.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I love 1941 – oddly based on a real ‘flap’ when a Japanese submarine surfaced off the California coast. And it has the late, great Dick Miller in it, which is always a bonus – although how he changes seats on the Ferris wheel, always bothered me. All the trash cans on the miniature pier that the wheel rolls down, are models of R2-D2, by the way, as shown in a copy of ‘Cinefex’ magazine at the time. And any movie that starts with such a great parody of the opening of ‘Jaws’, even down to getting Susan Backlinnie to reprise her role as a skinny-dipper, is fine by me.

  6. John Howard says:

    I’m with you there Peter…. loved the nod to Elton.

  7. Brian Evans says:

    I enjoyed 1941 as well. I couldn’t get over why it was such a huge flop.

  8. Nick says:

    Peter Dixon – you’re a genius.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    I watched Howard the Duck not so long ago, it’s an odd film, I quite enjoyed it.

    Wayne.

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