366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.
The tradition of celebrities narrating children’s literature is as old as recorded media itself; the first thing Thomas Edison ever recorded on the phonograph was his own recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Ever since then, plopping their children down in front of a famous person reading a book has been tried-and-true escape for parents. It’s a win for everyone: the kids get literature, the parents get distraction, and the celebrities receive a low-pressure gig with major PR upside. Not for nothing has SAG-AFTRA provided a helpful archive of famous storytellers, and if you needed another reason to hope for a speedy resolution to the ongoing strike (#sagaftrastrong #wgastrong), then it’s to save the world from recitations of kidlit by narrators with a lesser pedigree like, say, this guy.
Today, we present two such star-powered endeavors, each of which reflect the character of their narrators, but which tap into weirdness through their design as much as through the stories themselves.
This is particularly true of “The Fool and the Flying Ship,” which features Robin Williams doing his best impression of an immigrant Jewish Eastern European grandfather unspooling an old folktale about a young schlub who sets out to win the hand of a princess by fulfilling a number of impossible conditions set forth by the King. The only thing the ridiculous young man has going for him is his innate friendliness, but that proves a decisive advantage, as he assembles a retinue of similarly odd companions who are unusually well-suited to meeting the King’s challenges. The film is a product of Rabbit Ears Entertainment, a storytelling outfit responsible for numerous memorable celebrity narrations (foremost among them Jack Nicholson’s peerless rendering of some of Rudyard Kipling’s “Just-So Stories”), but “Flying Ship” stands out as a notably odd entry. Williams’ raucous recounting of the tale frequently feels improvised, with snarky asides and deadpan diversions (perhaps best-exemplified by the casual dismissal of the Fool’s two older brothers), and the rollicking score by The Klezmer Conservatory Band mirrors his energy. The story itself is happily unweighted, with any perceived morals secondary to the silliness of the Fool’s adventures.
There’s a case to be made, though, that Williams is simply following the lead of the wild illustrations that visualize the tale. Not a true animation, the movie consists of still images of Henrik Drescher’s artwork, similar to the snapshots of book pages found on “Reading Rainbow.” Drescher’s drawings are often ugly, sometimes even deranged, but filled with such joyful anarchic spirit that director Craig Rogers doesn’t need to do much more than add a little Ken Burns-effect here and there. The illustrations, set to Williams’ energetic performance, do the lion’s share of the work.
There is, of course, no one like Robin Williams. Buddy Hackett is particularly not like Robin Williams. On the other hand, Buddy Hackett is quintessentially Buddy Hackett. With him as your narrator, you get the full vibe of his Catskills shtick. So when we find him at the outset of “Mouse Soup” reading a story to no one in particular, all that’s missing are a microphone in one hand and a highball in the other. Remarkably, he continues to just read the story throughout the opening credits, a brazen move considering the amount of effort needed to create stop-motion footage of a creature reading a book. Finally, when the threat of becoming a weasel’s lunch interrupts the reading session, Hackett’s Mouse must become an animal-themed Scheherazade to escape with his life.
The stories he shares are curiously lacking in depth or even meaning. Characters such as a pair of rocks who can never move or a mouse serenaded by crickets seem to get what they want, but are left unfulfilled. The perplexing nature of Mouse’s stories (from the book by Arnold Lobel, of “Frog and Toad” fame) does have a clever aim, as they all end up contributing to his escape from the dimwitted weasel. But while the puzzle pieces all fall into place in a satisfying manner, the film doesn’t add much to them. Hackett’s narration is serviceable, but lacks any fear in the threat he faces or joy in his escape. The animation under director John Clark Matthews is faithful, but it’s not especially fun; the motley collection of bugs, rodents, and thorny bushes never develop enough personality to make them overcome their appearances. It seems like a mouse police officer or a cricket mariachi band should feel a little more playful than they do here.
One of the joys of children’s literature is the way it can push boundaries. Everything can be a little bit weirder, more inappropriate, more gross. “The Fool and the Flying Ship” and “Mouse Soup” both revel in subverting expectations, but they also prove how the telling of the story is at least as important as the story being told. A weird story is great, and a famous narrator is cool, but you have to get the mix just right to make it into something more.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The Fool and the Flying Ship”: “…one of the craziest animations I’ve ever seen. I guess it’s just the art style which is just so goddamn out there and bizarre (which I guess makes sense, since this is Drescher’s only IMDb credit whatsoever) combined with the eternally-running engine that is Robin Williams… It’s nuts. I have no other words for it.” – Reid, Films in Boxes
“Mouse Soup”: “The story has its beguiling moments, but the real appeal here is the whimsical stop-motion animation, which will render toddlers spellbound.” – Kenneth M. Chanko, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)
(“The Fool and the Flying Ship” was nominated for review by Rabbitearsblog, who said it was “pretty bizarre due to the art style.” “Mouse Soup” was nominated for review by Nick T, who called it “really odd… some of the freakiest claymation I’ve seen…” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)