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Barnaby and Me
(1979)

(SPOILERS) A comedy showcasing one of Australia’s greatest national treasures. No, not Paul Hogan: the koala bear. This curiosity came from a writer and a director with long Hollywood careers, and was one of six pictures made by Transatlantic Enterprises and ABC with a view to expanding their international markets. Following the example set by the UK, this formula involved transplanting American stars to local productions, hence one Sid Caesar appearing opposite Barnaby. Let’s face it, though, the real star of Barnaby and Me is Daws Butler.

Barnaby: Careful. I am an endangered species!

Butler being Hanna-Barbera’s go-to voice artist for, amongst others, Yogi Bear, Scooby-Dum, Quick Draw McGraw, Undercover Elephant and Huckleberry Hound. And Barnaby – “Gosh, I’m a cute little fellow, ain’t I?” – is disarmingly irreverent throughout the movie. Meaning that, while this is absolutely a kids’ movie, it’s often quite a sharp kids’ movie. Barnaby has relatively little “heroic” to do, so much of his involvement consists of cutting to him sitting in a tree offering smart remarks about the story he’s recounting, and most particularly maligning two-bit conman Leo Fisk (Caesar), who is attempting to evade the mob by posing as a zoologist.

Leo Fisk: Hey, you wouldn’t have any hints about how to get down?
Barnaby: Have you considered falling?

Leo – “I’d rather see poison ivy climbing this tree than Leo Fisk” – has inveigled himself into the life of Jennifer (Juliet Mills) – “She’s so sweet, so nice, so lovely, so gullible” – and her daughter Linda (Sally Boyden), who own Barnaby (as to Barnaby’s illegal pet status, they plead to Leo not to report them). Leo’s inevitably always on the make, and ever so keen to investigate a map left by Jennifer’s deceased husband in the belief that it will lead to gold. What it actually leads to is Happy Bars.

Leo Fisk: Delicious. Nutritious. Makes people feel terribly euphoric.

Yes, the Happy Bar can be found in a lost valley replete with stereotypical native tribe (who worship the koala). It is green and “made out of some sort of eucalyptus leaves”. Uh-huh. Those who consume it report “I never felt so good in my whole life”. Uh-huh. “Like I loved the whole world, and the whole world loved me back.” Uhhhh-huh. Budding Happy Bar eaters would have to wait another decade for a widely available product that would induce similar feelings of euphoria, but the trail arguably starts here, with Barnaby.

Barnaby: Now, this is one of those cases. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Lucky girl!

The signifiers of the Happy Bar taking effect are a very amusing – well, it always gets me – “Boingggg!” sound and an idiot smile spreading across the consumer’s face as they wave blissfully at whoever is in nearest proximity. Side effects? Pah. Yes, it makes Leo benignly randy (one of the vague horrors of the movie is that we’re asked to believe Jennifer would be attracted to Leo). And the next morning, the villagers are lying around groggily, almost as if they’re experiencing a collective come down. And true, Ko (Rangi Nicols) suddenly becomes morbidly obese. But apart from that… Yes, it seems the dreams of “a whole world as peaceful as this valley” are inevitably doomed. After feeding the Happy Bar to a mouse (now swapped out for a guinea pig) the lab analysis comes back that prolonged use of the snack – which “only contains one calorie” – cuts short the body’s ability to metabolise food. How quickly does this happen? Oh, about thirty years. As Leo suggests, maybe quitting them after 29 years would be the best option. But no. The entire consignment is thrown overboard come the climax. What a terrible waste!

Jennifer: Go be an object of adoration.
Barnaby: Gee! I love the way she says that.

Prior to the reveal of the Happy Bar’s less desirable qualities, Leo has done a deal with the chairman of International Foods Limited (James Condon, frog-faced Helen Daniels’ fancy man Douglas Blake in Neighbours). Who only turns out to be head of the syndicate Leo owes $1.67m and change to. The chairman’s lackeys include Huggins (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Toecutter in the same year’s Mad Max and Immortan Joe in Fury Road) and “Tall Baddie” (Bruce Spence, the Gyro Captain in Mad Max 2). Nikora worked mostly as a stuntman (including on Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome), but he’s very funny as Ko, delivering one of the picture’s most repeatable lines: “Ferrari, voom-voom!

Barnaby: Well, this is a fine state of affairs. Jenny’s stinko on Happy Bars. She’s further out than a weather satellite. And where’s Leo? Leo Fisk? Our hero? Oh Leo. Oh, there he is.

Also appearing is Wimbledon champion John Newcombe as himself during a slapstick third-act tennis match requiring Leo to disguise himself as opponent and would-be defector Boris Polyakevitch. Caesar reported that he was so out of his gourd during filming – not on Happy Bars but rather “booze and pills” – that he couldn’t remember anything about Barnaby and Me or indeed his time in Australia. That doesn’t prevent the match from being quite funny, as Leo glugs down a whole refill bottle on the water cooler (“You don’t have another, do you?”) and manages to parry most of Newcombe’s serves (although, “Next time you’re in Texas, look me up. You could do with a little help with your back hand”). It turns out Newcombe is the contact handling the defection (the defector has already scarpered, however).

Barnaby: Who needs this? You know, I could be doing those airline commercials. I bet Benji wouldn’t put up with this… treatment.

Everything turns out fine, of course. Leo is welcomed to the family (poor family). The bad guys, under the influence, volunteer for a sea voyage to Tahiti with Commander Bromwich (Kenneth Laird). Yes, there’s copious spiking of drinks in Barnaby and Me. Again with the autosuggestion of young minds. Director Norman Panama had co-helmed Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester and received writing credits on a slew of 1940s and 50s comedies including Road to Utopia and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House. James S Henerson worked on the likes of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. It might be tempting to see Barnaby and Me as slumming it (it would be Panama’s last work as director) in the manner of Michael Powell, when he could no longer get anything off the ground in the UK. That would be stretching things, though. Barnaby and Me is no classic, but it has its charms all its own if you’re the right age. And maybe even if you aren’t. The line in humour often plays to multiple levels, and Butler appears to be improvising, Johnny Morris-style at points (for example, when Barnaby is scratching himself). I particularly like the moment where the order goes out for the elimination of Leo and the gang. “Even the… koala?” responds the incredulous henchman.

Barnaby: It’s about time he carried me! I’ve been carrying him the entire picture!

Various dates are given for Barnaby and Me’s release. IMDB has its first showing on Australian TV as 1979, but it’s commonly referenced as 1978 (with filming taking place in 1976/7). It came to British TV in 1980, which is doubtless when I and a generation of highly impressionable children were first intoxicated by the heady delights of Happy Bars and a self-reflexive koala. The only surprise is that a Disney version with a CGI Barnaby hasn’t yet appeared.

 

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