All posts by Scott Sentinella

CAPSULE: XANADU (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Robert Greenwald

FEATURING: Olivia Newton-John, Michael Beck, Gene Kelly, Matt Lattanzi, James Sloyan

PLOT: Sonny Malone is a gifted artist reduced to designing album covers, but when he meets former big band leader Danny McGuire, the duo join forces with an Olympian muse open a roller disco club.

Still from Xanadu (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Xanadu is campy, kitschy and appalling, but it’s not weird. It’s just one of the last death rattles of the disco era.

COMMENTS: La La Land may have revived the movie musical, which has been on life support for decades because of flops like Xanadu. This film spawned a soundtrack album (deliriously overproduced by the Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne) that was a monster hit in 1980, spawning five top 20 singles. The movie itself, however, bombed, and rightfully so. It’s inoffensive, embarrassing piffle. Made on a big budget, Xanadu still looks cheap, and director Robert Greenwald , who later made The Burning Bed and several progressive-minded documentaries, doesn’t really seem to know how to stage musical numbers, despite choreography from Kenny Ortega (High School Musical). Michael Beck, fresh off the macho action classic The Warriors, looks embarrassed (he never starred in a movie again), and poor 68-year-old Gene Kelly makes his unfortunate farewell to musicals in this dud. Olivia Newton-John is beautiful but cannot act—although she was much better in Grease—-while director Don Bluth (An American Tail) contributes a weak animated segment.

Practically all memory of the film vanishes right after you’ve seen it. Xanadu is sort of a remake of the indifferently received 1947 Rita Hayworth musical Down to Earth, while Kelly also played a character named Danny McGuire in the 1944’s Cover Girl opposite Hayworth. Either of those films has to better than Xanadu, which only Newton-John may still remember fondly: the young Danny McGuire is played in flashback by dancer-actor Matt Lattanzi, who later became her husband. No amount of fake glitter and flash can salvage this Lattanzi-Newton John family album, however: the climactic musical number involves a series of revolving stages that reminded me of the old Disneyland show “America Sings”. I’d rather sit through “America Sings” again. In fact, those who want to experience Xanadu should listen to the soundtrack album (featuring Newton John, ELO, Cliff Richard, and the Tubes)  instead of slumbering through this decidedly non-weird musical relic of the Studio 54 era.

Someone apparently had pleasant, perhaps drug-induced memories of the picture, because in 2007 Xanadu was adapted into a modestly produced Broadway musical (starring “30 Rock”‘s Cheyenne Jackson) that was nominated  for a few Tony awards. In the end, Xanadu may be recalled chiefly as being part of the “great”—or awful—disco musical trend of 1980, which also gave us the infamous Village People vehicle Can’t Stop the Music. Anecdotally, unfortunate moviegoer John J.B. Wilson saw both films at a 99-cent double feature and came up with the idea of the Razzie awards, “honoring” the year’s worst films, which are still held today. At least Xanadu has better songs than Can’t Stop the Music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“To appreciate the madness within, one must take in the blinding neon sights with an open heart and at least one nostril-coating line of cocaine. Surely I hold no certainty that ‘Xanadu’ was fueled by heaping spoonfuls of Bolivian marching powder, but I offer this evidence: it was 1980 and the picture is bonkers.”–Brian Orndoff, Brianorndoff.com (DVD)

CAPSULE: APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX (1979/2001)

Must See(original 1979 cut)

Recommended(Redux cut)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Martin Sheen, , Robert Duvall, , Fredric Forrest, Albert Hall, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Harrison Ford, Bill Graham, , (Redux only), Aurore Clement (Redux only)

PLOT: Loosely based on the Joseph Conrad novella “Hearts of Darkness,” the film centers on Willard (Sheen), who is sent up the rivers of Cambodia to terminate the mad Colonel Kurtz (Brando) and destroy his cult-like compound.

Still from Apocalypse Now (1979)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Apocalypse truly is the Vietnam war on acid. At times it’s surreal, hallucinatory and mind-blowing, but that’s not always the same as weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 greatest films ever made, it would definitely make it. Heck, Apocalypse would probably make a list if this of the 66 greatest films ever made—although the longer 2001 Redux version is definitely inferior to the original 1979 film.

COMMENTS: Francis Ford Coppola’s original 153-minute version of Apocalypse Now opened in 1979 after a chaotic production and almost two years in the editing room. All that time, money and effort paid off, because, despite a draggy third act, Apocalypse Now is one of the maddest, greatest war movies ever made. Willard’s trip down the river (or the rabbit hole) is punctuated by one mind-boggling set-piece after another, including a helicopter assault on a Vietnamese village scored by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, a USO show featuring Playboy bunnies that slowly devolves into a chaotic free-for-all, and an opening sequence where a drunken Willard trashes his hotel room while Jim Morrison’s eerie “The End” pours out in surround sound. It’s the Vietnam War filtered through madness, LSD, and loads of unforgettable music.

The Redux version of the immortal film adds 49 minutes of frankly unnecessary footage, resulting in a wildly overlong 202 minute film. The “new” sequences mostly consist of two never-before seen set-pieces. In the first, Willard encounters a French family living on a plantation. They’re in Cambodia, but it’s as if they were still back in France circa 1950. Willard even finds romance with one of the women, Roxanne (Clement). This sequence, while interesting in an academic sort of way, is less than compelling. In the second new subplot, Chef (Forrest) and the other men on Willard’s boat spend the night with several of the Playboy bunnies last seen during the memorably disastrous “Suzy Q” sequence. These added scenes do little but show us that Willard and his crew found female companionship on their trip up the river, and it’s easy to see why Coppola cut the footage in the first place. It’s just not that involving.

Luckily, the rest of Apocalypse is still there: every other brilliant sequence that has earned the film a reputation as a flawed masterpiece. Yes, once Brando turns up, the movie sort of slides downhill, but the last 30 minutes improve upon repeated viewings. Furthermore, the 2010 Blu-Ray restores the film to its original widescreen dimensions. All the previous DVD versions had cropped the picture to fit high-definition television screens (according to cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s wishes), but no more. This Blu-Ray also includes the jaw-dropping 1991 documentary Hearts of Darkness, which examines the film’s nearly disastrous 1976-7 production, which was beset by typhoons, a heart attack, and a budget that swelled to a then-staggering $31.5 million. Directed by Eleanor Coppola (wife of Francis), the doc is itself must-see viewing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Alternately a brilliant and bizarre film…An exhilarating action-adventure exercise for two-thirds of its 139 minutes, ‘Apocalypse’ abruptly shifts to surrealistic symbolism for its denouement… Experience is almost a psychedelic one–unfortunately, it’s someone else’s psyche, and without a copy of crib notes for the Conrad novel, today’s mass audience may be hard put to understand just what is going on, or intended… Dennis Hopper is effectively ‘weird’ as Brando’s official photographer.”–Dale Pollock, Variety ( 139-min. ‘work in progress’ version shown at the 1979 Cannes festival)

CAPSULE: HOWARD THE DUCK (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Willard Huyck

FEATURING: Ed Gale, Lea Thompson, , , Liz Sagal, Holly Robinson, Chip Zien

PLOT: Loosely based on the Marvel comic book series, Howard is accidentally transported from his home planet of Duckworld to Cleveland, where he meets rock singer Beverly (Thompson); while trying to get  back home, his machinations inadvertently send an intergalactic monster to Ohio.

Still from Howard the Duck (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  It’s creepy, overblown and leadenly unfunny, but not really all that weird, except maybe for the “romance” between Howard and Beverly.

COMMENTS: Hollywood history is littered with legendary critical and box office disasters that really aren’t as bad as their reputations suggest, like Cleopatra, 1941, and Ishtar. On the other hand, there’s Howard the Duck, which truly is as godawful as everyone said it was back in 1986. The movie’s best moments come right at the beginning, when we see Howard on his home planet reading “Playduck” in front of a poster for “My Little Chickadee”. (The ornithological puns are as amusing as the picture ever gets). But once Howard lands on Earth, flirting with Thompson and befriending Robbins, the flick completely falls to pieces, culminating in a riot of stop-motion effects (courtesy of Phil Tippett) which are impressively elaborate, yet fake-looking and alarmingly grotesque. Howard himself resembles a Disney Audio-Animatronic possessed by an evil spirit.

Today, it would all be CGI, of course, but CGI couldn’t fix this script. The film was a $40 million debacle that almost ruined Thompson and Jones, who were coming off hits Back to the Future and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, respectively. Infamously produced by George Lucas, this was his biggest mistake until Jar Jar Binks. One odd thing about the film: the theme song, written by Thomas Dolby and George Clinton, is an ear-worm that adamantly refuses to get out of one’s head.

The 2016 “Special Edition” Blu-ray features some 40 minutes of extras imported from the 2009 DVD, along with 11 minutes of featurettes from 1986. These include two trailers from the original release, plus a “News Featurette” and three short documentaries about the film’s stunts, special effects and music. From 2016 comes a twenty-six minute look at the film’s pre-production and shooting, and a 13-minute short examining the movie’s post-production, release, disastrous reception and “legacy”. That legacy includes Howard’s post-credits appearance in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Howard the Duck was, believe it or not, the first Marvel comic book character to appear in a feature film. Don’t be surprised if Howard receives a big-budget “reboot” one of these days.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: “A hopeless mess… a gargantuan production which produces a gargantuan headache.”–Leonard Maltin (contemporaneous)

LIST CANDIDATE: I [HEART] HUCKABEES (2004)

DIRECTED BY: David O. Russell

FEATURING: , Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, , , ,

PLOT: Albert (Schwartzman) is an activist fighting the gigantic Huckabees corporation, which is building a Target-style store in the nearby woods. Enlisting the help of a pair of “existential detectives” (Tomlin and Hoffman), Albert soon encounters two Huckabees operatives—the beautiful blonde couple Brad (Law) and Dawn (Watts)—as well as a disillusioned fireman (Wahlberg). Eventually, everyone’s lives are changed.

Still from I [Heart] Huckabees (2004)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because it is so willfully, obstinately pretentious, unfunny and heavy-handed as to be all but impenetrable. Still, fans of the bizarre will likely get something out of it, as it definitely goes all-out in its manic insanity and breaks a ton of storytelling rules.

COMMENTS: Director David O. Russell once said that I [Heart] Huckabees was his least favorite of his own films. It may not have been fun to make (find the YouTube videos that show Russell throwing a tantrum—among other things—at Tomlin), because it certainly isn’t fun to watch.  A labyrinthine mess, Huckabees makes no sense and doesn’t seem to want to. Despite fine performances (particularly Wahlberg’s) from its all-star cast, the movie is (apparently intentionally) unappealing from beginning to end. Granted, this is a polarizing picture (no one is likely to have a “meh” reaction to it), but yours truly could barely sit through the film.

After this debacle, Russell made Nailed, which was left unfinished and shelved for years, but followed it up with three artistic and commercial triumphs in a row: The Fighter (also with Wahlberg), Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. I [Heart] Huckabees, by contrast, is like a transmission beamed in from an alternate, unpleasant universe in which nothing means anything. (Perhaps that was the point of the “existential detectives”). The film reaches one its many nadirs when Albert has a -like vision of Brad as a lactating Virgin Mary, or something.  Meanwhile Dustin Hoffman sports a hairstyle reminiscent of the Beatles circa 1964, Tippi Hedren drops an F-bomb, Schwartzman’s real-life mother (Talia Shire) shows up to play Albert’s mother, and Shania Twain pops up as herself (I can’t see her fan base enjoying this picture). None of this is amusing or at all entertaining. It is, however, genuinely bonkers. What the point of this silliness is  remains a mystery, but one that most people didn’t care to find out when the film opened in 2004. That was the same year that the equally challenging , but far superior, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was released. That film had a heart as well as a brain. Huckabees, on the other hand, is like an endless series of interlocking puzzle pieces that can never be put together correctly. It’s not a good movie, but it’s definitely a weird one, and it just might make it onto the List.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird does not necessarily equal funny.”–Linda Cook, Quad City Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “sam.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: BIG FISH (2003)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Albert Finney, , , , , , Robert Guillaume, , , Loudon Wainwright III,

PLOT: William Bloom (Crudup) returns to his Alabama hometown when he receives news that his father, Edward (Finney), is dying. William has never gotten along with his dad, a spinner of tale tales, but is it possible that any of his stories are true?

Still from Big Fish (2003)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This is Tim Burton for people who don’t like Tim Burton. It’s classic Oscar bait: a sentimental story of a dysfunctional father-son relationship with the Burtonesque elements—werewolves, witches, conjoined twins—coming in on the margins. As it is, the film is quite enjoyable, but not one of Burton’s best and definitely not one of his strangest—so it’s definitely not weird enough for the List.

COMMENTS: : Big Fish is Tim Burton lite, which doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining. On the surface this is a story of father-son reconciliation, and since Burton had lost both of his parents in the few years before Big Fish, the story must have had extra resonance for him. But this is still a Tim Burton film, with moving trees , a giant and mermaids, among other contrivances, and it definitely dips into any number of fantastical realms. Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney play Edward at 30ish and 65ish, respectively, and Alison Lohman (whatever happened to her?) and Jessica Lange are the younger and older versions of Edward’s wife, Sandra. All four are convincing, as is Crudup in the thankless role of Edward’s perpetually grouchy son, Will. However, future Oscar winner Marion Cotillard makes little impression as William’s wife. Philippe Rousellot’s cinematography is digitally manipulated, which would be a hallmark of almost every Burton film after this, and everything looks so beautiful that it’s not difficult to be sincerely moved by this film’s third act—the first time that Burton attempted to tug the heartstrings since Edward Scissorhands. He certainly hasn’t tried anything similar since. Of course, this is exactly the kind of manipulation that had naysayers complaining that Burton had sold out, and that Big Fish  was too bland and impersonal. Manipulative it may be, but the film feels far more Burton-esque than the lamentable Planet of the Apes or the the dispiriting Alice in Wonderland. Big Fish may be the rare Burton film that can please both his acolytes and detractors equally.

Sharp-eyed viewers will note a very young Miley Cyrus as a little girl in a Brigadoon-like town that Edward visits, and sharp-eared listeners will notice that, except for Cyrus, there isn’t one authentic Southern accent in this Alabama-set tale. Lange still sounds like she’s doing Blanche Dubois. It all adds to the (intentional?) unreality of this charming tall tale.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There are quirks aplenty in Big Fish, but spirited performances from a talented cast, led by a standout Finney as the slippery-fish raconteur, help domesticate the wall-to-wall weirdness.”–Megan Lehmann, The New York Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Nick.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: THE DOORS (1991)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Oliver Stone

FEATURING: , Meg Ryan, , Kathleen Quinlan

PLOT: In the 1960’s, Jim Morrison (Kilmer), the lead singer of the rock group The Doors, plunges headlong into the world of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. He doesn’t make it out alive, dying at the tragically young age of 27 (just like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin); the film ends on a shot of Morrison’s gravestone in Paris in the same cemetery as Chopin, Bizet and Oscar Wilde.

Still from The Doors (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Just because a movie features a large number of hallucinatory LSD “trips” doesn’t necessarily make it weird.

COMMENTS: No one does overblown insanity like Oscar-winning writer-director Oliver Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday). On a huge movie theater screen, with huge movie theater sound, The Doors was a stunning, overwhelming experience—particularly the concert sequences, which Stone said were inspired by the orgy scene in DeMille’s Ten Commandments. But on television—even a big screen HDTV—all that spectacle is reduced to an entertainingly silly and pretentious camp exercise, redeemed by one unforgettable performance by Val Kilmer that almost alone makes the film worth seeing. Although Kilmer essentially reduces Morrison to a caricature (he never seems to be sober), he looks and sounds so much like the real thing that it’s eerie. How Kilmer didn’t get at least an Oscar nomination for this is beyond me. He blows everyone else off the screen (with the arguable exception of , perfectly cast in a cameo as ). Meg Ryan fights her girl-next-door-image as Morrison’s doomed lover Pamela Courson, and Kyle MacLachlan, Kevin Dillon and Frank Whaley have nothing to do but a slow burn as “The Lizard King”’s increasingly frustrated bandmates. Morrison is increasingly haunted by visions of his own death, the ghost of Dionysus (or something), and an elderly Native American man (Floyd Red Crow Westerman); as everyone on screen descends deeper into drugs and despair (Morrison and Courson each try to kill each other), the movie spins so far out of control it almost ventures into territory. The result is that nearly everyone in the film comes off as seriously unlikable. Morrison seems to believe he deserves to be buried with Balzac, Proust and Moliere–which he ultimately was—from frame one. That being said, some of us like silly and pretentious spectacle, so, if you are one of those, try to see this film on the biggest possible screen and the best sound system around. This would at least attempt to do justice to the Doors’ legendary music and Robert Richardson’s staggering cinematography.

Stone’s 141-minute wallow in hysterical excess and bombast is nutty and ultimately exhausting, but far from weird, particularly when it comes to movies about drugs and/or rock music.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What’s most peculiar about the film is Stone’s attitude toward his hero. He’s indulging in hagiography, but of a very weird sort. A good part of the film is dedicated to demonstrating what a drunken, boring lout Morrison was. But while on the one hand Stone acknowledges how basically pointless and destructive his excesses became, on the other, he keeps implying that it’s all part of the creative process… Amid all this trippy incoherence, the performances are almost irrelevant.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE THREE CABALLEROS (1944)

DIRECTED BY: , Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, , Harold Young

FEATURING: Dora Luz, Aurora Miranda, voices of Clarence Nash, Jose Oliveira, Joaquin Garay, Sterling Holloway

PLOT: Three Caballeros is one of the “package features” that Walt Disney made during World War II, a compilation of short subjects (a la Fantasia) with a vaguely Latin American theme.

Still from The Three Caballeros (1944)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Because only the last 15 minutes or so of this 70-minute feature are truly weird. However, if this were a list of the 366 weirdest animated films ever made, this picture might make it.

COMMENTS: In Three Caballeros, Donald Duck and his friends—the Brazilian parrot Jose, the Mexican rooster Panchito, and the manic Aracuan bird—embark on a musical tour of South America that impressively combines live-action with animation. Along the way, they encounter Aurora Miranda (sister of Carmen) and engage in enough wild slapstick to shame the more anarchic Warner Bros. cartoon characters of the time (Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, etc.).

Despite having its own ride at EPCOT Center, Caballeros is one of Disney’s most obscure animated films, and with good reason: most of it is kind of dull. What does distinguish the movie, however, is its peculiar, almost Tex Avery-like tendency to turn Donald Duck into a downright lustful bird every time he encounters a Latin beauty (which happens a lot), and a bizarrely psychedelic third act that is a relentless assault of wild visual imagery a la the “Pink Elephants on Parade” segment from Dumbo. The last fifteen minutes of the picture practically turns it into Yellow Submarine, with exploding flowers and dancing, suggestive cacti (reminiscent of the giant swaying bananas in ’s 1943 musical The Gang’s All Here), just two factors in a non-stop crazy quilt of pre-psychedelia that refuses to stop until the avian trio has sung the film’s title song and Panchito has shot his guns in the air about 150 times. It’s exhausting (and, by Disney standards, extremely weird), yet clearly the highlight of the film. This makes The Three Caballeros worth seeing for die-hard fans of Disney and/or animation, but they should prepare to do a lot of fast-forwarding on their DVD remotes.

Otherwise, the rest of the film is harmless and/or forgettable, although Blue Sky Studio’s recent, music-filled Rio (about Brazilian parrots) may owe something to both this film and Disney’s similar 1943 packager Saludos Amigos. As alluded to before, this movie obviously has its fans within the Disney empire’s theme park division, as the Mouse has tried to keep all its characters alive in one way or another: Jose and Panchito can be spotted in the revamped “It’s a Small World” ride.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

I would not hesitate to call it the most surreal work ever produced by the Disney studios… in a film full of surrealist touches, Donald the sex fiend is easily the strangest part, though certainly one of the most memorable. (The fact that the animation looks a bit pasted on top of the live action footage just makes it all the weirder).”–Tim Brayton, Anatgony & Ecstasy (DVD)

CAPSULE: BABE: PIG IN THE CITY (1998)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: E.G. Daily (voice), Magda Szubanski, Mickey Rooney, James Cromwell

PLOT: After the porcine Babe accidentally injures Farmer Hoggett, Mrs. Hoggett (Szubanski) takes over the family farm, which immediately begins losing money. Desperate, she takes Babe to the big city for another shepherding contest (like the one that ended the first film), but the duo find more than they bargained for, including an elaborate hotel populated almost exclusively by animals.

Still from Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While it’s definitely louder and more chaotic than the gentle original, this enjoyable sequel certainly doesn’t deserve its reputation as a bizarre miscalculation. If this website were about the 366 weirdest family films, Babe 2 might get on that list.

COMMENTS: Unlike the beloved, Oscar-nominated Babe, Babe: Pig in the City was a gigantic box-office flop, at least in the U.S. Reviews were mixed to negative (mostly negative), with the notable exception of Siskel and Ebert, who both lavished the production with praise. Audiences stayed home in droves, as they say, and the picture was D.O.A. from the first weekend. Everyone seemed to feel that the movie was too dark and sinister, and, watching the film now, one is struck by the fact that director George “Mad Max” Miller  does indeed direct the action as if he were still doing The Road Warrior, with plenty of looming close-ups shot with a fish-eyed lens and a frenetic, restless camera. There are lots of weirdness-for-the-sake-of-weirdness touches, like the way that Mickey Rooney (who never speaks) always looks as if he was interrupted in the middle of dinner and forgot to wipe his mouth. The “big city” is positively fanciful, featuring the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House all in one town; it’s an overload of visual invention, unlike the placid, bucolic setting of the original Babe. And James Cromwell is almost MIA, showing up at only the beginning and the end.

But Babe: Pig in the City is hardly the nightmare that it’s been made out to be. Doesn’t anyone remember the frights in The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka, or most of the Disney classics? In the original Babe there is a scene where Farmer Hoggett aims a gun right into the pig’s face, intending to turn him into bacon; it’s still rather startling, so the more jarring moments in the sequel, as when Babe is chased by a snarling dog, shouldn’t be that surprising. And this is one sequel, that, unlike so many others, tries to do something entirely different from the original.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…scattered reports of the sequel taking on a Fellini-esque quality that wouldn’t translate to the masses proved utterly groundless… Miller and his army of technicians and animal specialists invent crazy quilt contraptions that spin off in weird trajectories when set in motion.”–Leonard Klady, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (2005)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Freddie Highmore, David Kelly,  Annasophia Robb, Julia Winter, Jordan Fry, Philip Wiegratz, ,

PLOT: Poor, good-natured Charlie Bucket (Freddie Highmore) wins a coveted Golden Ticket to visit the fabulous chocolate factory owned by the mysterious Willy Wonka (Johnny Depp); once there, Charlie discovers that all of his fellow school-aged winners are hateful brats, and Mr. Wonka seems to have a few screws loose himself…

Still from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s deliciously weird in the usual Tim Burton manner, this is probably the most benign and family-friendly of all his films. Even Frankenweenie is scarier.

COMMENTS: When Tim Burton’s visually sumptuous film of Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in 2005, there was much discussion of how the late Mr. Dahl felt that the earlier, classic 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had toned down his often mean-spirited material. (This opinion was a little strange, considering that Dahl had written the screenplay.) The new film, it was said, was much more faithful to the book. Truth be told, both pictures hew very closely to the novel; but, although this might sound like sacrilege, Burton’s film is more impressive in almost every way than the earlier Gene Wilder movie. (Incidentally, the 1971 film was not very popular with anyone when it originally opened; it was only later that a whole new audience embraced the movie on television.) The 2005 version is by far the better directed and designed of the two films, but, although Johnny Depp’s Wonka is utterly delightful, he doesn’t come close to projecting the genuine menace, and, ironically enough, the fatherly warmth that Wilder did. Wilder gave a full-fledged, three-dimensional performance; Depp, while he is great fun to watch, is basically playing a cartoon. Of course, for those of us who saw the earlier film as children, Wilder made a tremendous impact. Who knows what the kids of 2005 felt when they saw Depp?

Mr. Depp looks and sounds something like Michael Jackson here (although he has Anna Wintour’s hair), and all the color has been digitally drained from his face. This Willy Wonka hates kids, and with good reason. Burton’s film makes it clear that the brats all survive their punishments in Wonka’s factory (another reason why this won’t make the List), while the 1971 version left their fates up in the air. The 2005 film does include some sequences from the book not in the earlier film, like the memorable bit where the tiresome Veruca Salt (Julia Winter) is attacked by nut-cracking squirrels, and the adventures of Prince Pondicherry (Nitin Ganatra). But some of screenwriter John August’s all-new additions, such as the revelation that Wonka’s estranged father (Christopher Lee) is a dentist, feel unnecessary. (The flashback to the young, candy-loving Wonka’s bad teeth and increasingly grotesque retainers are grisly fun, though, like something out of Little Shop of Horrors). Thankfully, Depp and Highmore, who co-starred together a year earlier in Finding Neverland, have good chemistry. The fact that Highmore is now playing psychotic killer Norman Bates on TV’s Bates Motel makes it look like another collaboration with Tim Burton would be a good idea.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The wondrous surfaces have a weird undercurrent that won’t go away… Before the trip is over, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ has gone from delectable to curdled, and Depp’s performance has shrunk from bizarrely riveting to one-note and vaguely creepy, turning Willy Wonka into yet another of Burton’s antisocial weirdoes. But then this is scarcely the first time a Burton film has started out great only to lose its way with fanciful doodlings and lack of secure moorings.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1996)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Paul Terry, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margoyles, Pete Postlethwaite, Steven Culp, , , Jane Leeves, , Simon Callow

PLOT: A boy rides a giant peach across the Atlantic Ocean to New York City.
Still from James and the Giant Peach (1996)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a light-hearted fantasy film for children, and fantasy isn’t necessarily weird just because it’s fantastical. Also, the movie tones down some of the darker elements of the original 1961 source novel by the delightfully mean-spirited .

COMMENTS: Orphaned James (Paul Terry, in his only film) is mistreated, Cinderella-style, by his cruel aunts, the angular Spiker (Joanna Lumley) and the portly Sponge (Miriam Margoyles). When a mystery man (Pete Postlethwaite) gives James a jar of magical crocodile tongues–which are supposed to solve all of James’ problems, although he doesn’t understand why–James loses them in the grass near the roots of a dead tree. The next day, a peach that was in the grass has grown to the size of a house, and the insects inside the fruit—a centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss), a Russian spider (Susan Sarandon), a ladybug (Jane Leeves), an earthworm (David Thewlis), a grasshopper (Simon Callow) and a glowworm (Margoyles again)—are now taller than James, who takes off with the bugs inside the now-rolling peach to New York City.

This somewhat obscure Disney production is a masterpiece of beautiful and stunning stop-motion animation, directed by Henry Selick, who helmed the equally dazzling 1993 classic The Nightmare Before Christmas (contrary to popular belief,  did not direct Nightmare, although he did co-produce and co-write the film, as well as design its distinctive look.) This one is not, however, a masterpiece of storytelling. Even at a mere 79 minutes, James and the Giant Peach feels like a rather thin—although marvelous—children’s book stretched out to feature-length. The filmmakers added episodes not in the novel, such as an encounter with ghostly pirates (including one that’s a dead ringer for Nightmare protagonist Jack Skellington) to flesh out the plot.

Also threaded throughout the proceedings are a number of songs by Randy “Short People” Newman, although they sound more like conventional showtunes than the low-key ditties he penned for many Pixar films. The all-star voice cast is not known for their singing, and this film does nothing to change that. Richard Dreyfuss is at his most abrasive as the cigar-chomping centipede (the only American character in the story), but casting the glamorous Jane Leeves  (“Frasier”) as the ladybug—a jolly old British matron—is a nice change of pace. The film’s most memorable performances come courtesy of Joanna Lumley (“Absolutely Fabulous”) and Miriam Margoyles, who are made up to look especially ghoulish in the film’s opening and closing live-action sequences, although their monstrous Aunt characters are spared the dire fates they had in the book. (Aunts Spiker and Sponge seem to be a clear influence on Harry Potter’s horrible Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia.) There’s plenty of visual razzmatazz on display here, but ultimately the film is less memorable than either Nightmare or Selick’s superb later effort Coraline.

Since James and the Giant Peach is a relatively little-known film, Disney gives its Blu-ray release short shrift (by their standards) in the extras department. There’s a game, a music video, a “making of” featurette that runs a whopping four-and-a-half minutes, the movie’s trailer, and a gallery of fifty-nine “Behind the Scenes” still photographs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shines with weird, whimsical invention.”–Stephen Rea, The Philadelphia Inquirer (contemporaneous)