Sunday, June 10, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Materialism… for Kids!

Still riding the yuppie wave of the 1980’s and desperate to draw kids into theaters no matter what the ethical implications, producers in the 1990’s sunk to some terrible depths. Masquerading as family fare, major studios capitalized on the new brand of childhood dreams indoctrinated into American youth (of which I was, at that time, an enthusiastic member) and ever more prevalent in a culture composed of endless commercials and aisles of impersonal toys. The fantasies of the average preadolescent had changed from fighting dragons and flying spaceships to a much less noble and “cute” goal: getting absolutely stinking rich.

So a disreputable wave of rich-kid movies came pouring in, all but washing away the implicit value systems underlying most children’s movies of previous generations and replacing it with shrill scream for more money and more “stuff.” Happy endings and quick-and-dirty “morality” in a technical last-minute sense remained for the parent’s sake, on the off chance they would ever sit through a whole film with their children. (It was hard, since they were, demographically, both working jobs during the day and hardly had time to pick up a Happy Meal for their kid let alone microwave mac and cheese to eat in front of the TV.) One wonders if the films were so bad intentionally to put the parents asleep, so that they wouldn’t feel that nagging pang of conscience that comes with using sugary candy or mindless entertainment to bribe a child into an hour of peace and quiet.

Do I sound bitter? I do sound bitter.

But hey, we brought this partially upon ourselves, us children of the nineties. We couldn’t shut up about how much we wanted the newest remote-control off-road racecar or that stomping, whirring totally obnoxious robot that spoke (in a tinny broken-English voice) three different nonsense lines about slaughtering aliens. Like the protagonist in the horrible movies irresistibly marketed to us between epilepsy-inducing cartoons, we also dreamt of eating an infinite amount of ice cream, boxing in an inflatable arena, playing virtual reality games against angry-looking polygons, living in a treehouse with the same comforts of 1950’s model home, driving a monster truck over something (Did it matter what? School buses would be nice…), booking a concert for our backyard, watching R rated movies on a 5000 inch TV and swimming in a sea of disposable low-quality plastic.

In 1988, “Big” taught us that our childhood wasn’t just important because it was full of innocence, wonder and enchantment, it was also a time when materialism had the power of pure and unadulterated happiness; a joy so missing in the lives of adults who had “grown out” of toys. The solution, increasingly, was irresponsible spending alleviated at the last minute by some deus ex machina with all the bad connotations magically grafted on to some impossibly evil adults (who would probably have spent the money on paying off their debts and setting up a long-term stock portfolio rather than on toys, the villainous curs) and a sappy, ill-fitting “lesson” about family or standing up for yourself half-heartedly jammed into the final five minutes.

By the 1990’s, toys begin to play an ever more important part in films, all the better for action-figure tie-ins and cross-market synergy. In 1990’s “Home Alone” a boy stripped of friends and family can trustingly turn, like a budding and properly vicious entrepreneur, to his wealth of trinkets to defend his home from invading crooks intent on (gasp!) stealing from the outrageous suburban opulence of the child’s home. The Christmastime setting serves a coldly calculated twofold purpose (neither of which is the type of holiday spirit and general goodwill found in such outdated material as “The Miracle on 34th Street” or “A Christmas Carol”): realistically adding more toys and even ornaments to the fray and capitalizing on the chance to boost ratings with a seasonal theme.

By 1995, Pixar would make possibly the best of these new-age kid’s classics by hitting upon the brilliant next phase: shift the focus entirely to the toys and cut out the human element. I still can’t stop myself from loving “Toy Story” and the way it so enchantingly transports us to a reality consisting exclusively of playtime and where the only real conflict is whether or not a newer, more-advanced toy will replace us on Christmas.

The trend continues to this day and although I no longer go to theaters to trade my cash for two hours worth of self-perpetuating financial fantasies, I can still recognize from trailers the glorified toys dubbed as “gadgets” in the “Spy Kids” franchise and I can literally feel the presence of “Shrek 3” tie-ins crowding the ether of our “collect all 372” culture.

I still sound bitter. Maybe I should get to the task at hand.

The sad truth is that “Big,” “Home Alone” and “Toy Story” are actually the kiddy commercialism craze’s cream of the crop. Rather than focus on these movies, The Film Walrus shall now conduct an Iceberg Arena that pits two flicks from 1994 that stand out in my mind as being particularly irredeemable perpetrators of binge-spending nonsense: “Ri¢hie Ri¢h” (thank god the title had no S’s) and “Blank Check.” The competition will be conducted primarily from memory (jogged a little by the internet) since I am so terribly loathe to re-watch them.

[Image: Note the tagline. I would have gone with "Opportuniy Knocks, Opportunism Rocks."]

Disney committed “Blank Check,” but was exonerated after bribing the jury. Preston Waters (Brian Bonsall) stars as a suburbanite so poor that he can’t afford to go on the cool rides at Six Flags (number of tears shed by theatergoers: 0). He prays to God (don’t worry, there shan’t be any religion, faith, charity or piety marring the fun for the kiddies) to make him a millionaire.

Coincidently, a bunch of bank robbers led by Carl Quigley (Miguel Ferrer) set up a scam to launder a million dollars through a nearby bank. Quigley accidentally runs over the bike of the young Preston on his way out after arranging the payoff. In a rush since a cop is patrolling the parking lot and apparently unable to estimate the cost of a bike, he gives Preston a signed blank check.

That night, Preston uses his computer (what a clever young lad) to estimate how long it would take before he will be a millionaire based on filling in the check with various figures and investing the sum. Finally he settles on instant gratification (the decade’s favorite theme) and just has the computer write the check for a cool million. Sure enough, when he goes to cash the check with Quigley’s name the bank owner assumes its part of the laundering plan and gives the kid the cash. Soon the crooks realize their mistake and are hot on the trail, but not before Preston can create the false identity of Mr. Macintosh and use it to purchase a castle with every luxury he ever dreamed of.

Director Rupert Wainwright, still flushed with the success of his MC Hammer music videos (available on the laughably titled collection “2 Legit 2 Quit”), directs the film as though half his audience were blind, the other half deaf and all of them stupid. Everything is spelled out loudly, with emotions and motivations telegraphed through exaggerated gestures and expository dialogue. The film has the flat, over-lit visuals of commercial for jeans and ends up being so bad I can’t even write it off as forgettable: clearly I remember enough of it to qualify as traumatized.

As per standard for this type of movie, no one is even trying to act. The villains are impossible caricatures who behave with maximum predictability and imbecility so that they can be easily outsmarted by the sassy, resourceful kid (known as the “Home Alone” formula). I may have a soft spot for Miguel Ferrer based on his minor role as Agent Albert on “Twin Peaks,” but the man also has “Mr. Magoo” on his hands and that’s a bloody stain that can’t be washed off.

Meanwhile, Brian Bonsall delivers the type of performance that only a middle-age studio executive could think was cool. Backwards caps, large sunglasses and go karts were involved. What’s most frustrating about the character is that for a kid who knows how to use financial software, he spends all his cash within a week, primarily on items with absolutely no long term value. The clunky central portion of the film accompanies Bonsall on an ill-thought buying spree that involves pizza parties, live music, a wall of virtual reality TVs, a boxing ring and limousines. Even his choice in realty demonstrates a total lack of consideration (who really wants to live in a what amount to a giant stone cellar?).

The plot is openly ridiculous, but nothing so much as the romantic interest, a sexy FBI agent (aren’t they all in movies?) more than twice his age. I think that at the ending she even tells the preadolescent Romeo to look her up when he gets older. Eww. In addition to being an inappropriately mismatched sex object, she also gets to work overtime as the final act escape hatch to save Preston from the villains, thereby rescuing the boy from learning any lessons or getting the punishment he deserves.

“Blank Check,” incidentally, made $30 million in the US.

[Image: If you could punch only one person from this box art, who would it be?]

Over at Warner Brothers, someone had the brilliant (?) idea of adapting a series of comic strips that ran for 30 years back in the 1950’s. “Ri¢hie Ri¢h” features Macaulay Culkin as the title character, a boy far more in need of a solid slapping than even Preston Waters. Richie is the wealthiest boy in the world, but all he wants is to make friends (how precious) and to rescue his parents (Richard and Regina Rich) who have recently been bombed by Laurence Van Dogh somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle.

Culkin gives one of his trademark terrible performances, earning universally derisive reviews and further staking his claim as the face of lame 90’s family fodder. The producers clearly had far too much money (fittingly) and no idea where to spend it (symptomatically) and inject a dose of needless cameos to state their point: namely that Richie Rich is so rich it’s downright “wacky.” We get Reggie Jackson as Rich’s coach, Claudia Schiffer (that decade sure did love her) as his aerobics instructor (again the age difference in the sexualized scene only makes it creepy) and Ben Stein as his professor. The rest of the cast is filled out with the type of people that I would pay money not to see in movies.

The film has a level of monetary excess that borders on surrealism and almost entertains through audacity alone. Richie Rich has his own roller coaster, McDonald’s (what child of the 90’s wouldn’t give his sister for a personal fast food service) and a dog (called a “dollarmation”) with dollar signs rather than spots. His entire mansion is festooned with more dollar signs and everything that isn’t intrinsically expensive is made out of solid gold for good measure.

The conclusion is raped out of Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” with Richie Rich attempting to get to the family vault, hidden inside a Mt Rushmore style sculpture of his family (Mt Richmore, of course. Have you figured out the pattern?). For some reason that more or less escapes my memory, yet seems right at home in logic of a 1994 kid movie, Richie is also being fired at by an enormous laser. When he finally enters the vault, he finds it packed with family photos and worthless heirlooms, because “…that’s what we Riches treasure.” Aw, how cute. The real money is stored in banks and stocks. Close call, for a moment I thought they might have donated it to charities and I might have left the theater thinking depressing thoughts about the presence of poor people in the world.

The “humor” comes in the form of slapstick, fart jokes and pop culture references when not simply relying on the idea of outrageous amounts of money and inserting “rich” for every syllable that starts with ‘R.’

Like all films from the mid-90’s, kids are depicted as being dangerously tech savvy. Richie Rich has some ridiculous computer that can zoom in on the exact location of his parents with infinite resolution magic and a variety of zany inventions (that two word phrase should send theater viewers running) that result in plenty of comic misadventures. Likewise, Preston Waters has no problem using a computer to fill out a check or to impersonate a reclusive millionaire during a real estate auction.

Anyway, it’s a tough call to decide which film is less stupefying. “Richie Rich” is marginally less funny, more pathetically pandering to its audience and more caught up in conspicuous wealth, but also has the advantage of being so over-the-top that it accidentally works as auto-critique and almost as parody. It’s too bad I can’t just cop out and claim that no winner is possible in such a cinematic cesspool.

Winner: Blank Check, primarily for being two minutes shorter.


Patti said...

This was fairly hilarious. Many a good line.

Mad Dog said...

I remember watching these movies and wondering why my family wasn't as rich.

Derek said...

Ironically, I just watched Saved! tonight, which is fairly good for a chick flick, but I wasn't particularly impressed by Mr. Culkin.

FilmWalrus said...

I actually like many aspects of "Saved!" especially the first half (before it feels the need to sell itself short and wrap things up with a stereotypical dance climax) and wouldn't even necessarily say it was a chick flick. I'm glad you had a chance to watch it.

Oh, and Culkin now is nowhere near as bad as Culkin then. I feel like he is a little bit more self-aware nowadays.

Mad Dog said...

Party Monster, after all.

Unknown said...

This is a little shallow of me, perhaps, but I always hated the kid in Blank Check for his voice and looks -- not to mention the backward (and ugly!) hat and disgusting sunglasses. I always hated what I thought of as "pretty boys" who were clearly supposed to be "cute," epitomized by JTT (to me, at the time).


How did I manage to go 22 years without seeing Richie Rich? Clearly I must have spectacular luck. Sadly, after the conversation which spurred this Iceberg Arena...I kind of wanted to see it. We should do a double feature of that and Salo, so we can hit the "I know I don't want to see it, but I kind of want to see it" double feature.

Unknown said...

Also, I'd like to throw in my two Culkin cents (with cents signs as the C's).

As I said, I didn't see Richie Rich. I think he's funny in Uncle Buck (a reasonable person might say he's the only thing funny in it) and amusing (if not quite up to the task?) in Home Alone (I had a rewatching within the last few years and found it not nearly as gagworthy as the sequels had made me believe).

I actually thought he was delightfully evil in The Good Son, but I know that Brian didn't like the movie as much as I did.

Everything else, basically, crap crap crap. My Girl? UTTER CRAP. Hate him and everything until basically Saved!, in which I find him tolerable and sufficiently indie.

The end.

Mad Dog said...

You should see Richie Rich, don't listen to anyone.

FilmWalrus said...

I forgot to mention, Richie Rich made $38 million, thus proving unequivically that it is a great movie and worth seeing... or something.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I just found this. My boyfriend and I were arguing about which film was better so I just looked to see if I could find any blogs. We realize both were terrible, but I also picked blank check, so thank you Walrus.

FilmWalrus said...

Glad to be of service!

When will boyfriends everywhere realize that girlfriends are always right?