Skip to main content

Please! No frontal shots.

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.

 

Popular posts from this blog

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

My hands hurt from galloping.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) (SPOILERS) Say what you like about the 2016 reboot, at least it wasn’t labouring under the illusion it was an Amblin movie. Ghostbusters 3.5 features the odd laugh, but it isn’t funny, and it most definitely isn’t scary. It is, however, shamelessly nostalgic for, and reverential towards, the original(s), which appears to have granted it a free pass in fan circles. It didn’t deserve one.

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

I’ve heard the dancing’s amazing, but the music sucks.

Tick, Tick… Boom! (2021) (SPOILERS) At one point in Tick, Tick… Boom! – which really ought to have been the title of an early ’90s Steven Seagal vehicle – Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson is given some sage advice on how to find success in his chosen field: “ On the next, maybe try writing about what you know ”. Unfortunately, the very autobiographical, very-meta result – I’m only surprised the musical doesn’t end with Larson finishing writing this musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical, in which he is finishing writing his musical… – takes that acutely literally.

Out of my way, you lubberly oaf, or I’ll slit your gullet and shove it down your gizzard!

The Princess and the Pirate (1944) (SPOILERS) As I suggested when revisiting The Lemon Drop Kid , you’re unlikely to find many confessing to liking Bob Hope movies these days. Even Chevy Chase gets higher approval ratings. If asked to attest to the excruciating stand-up comedy Hope, the presenter and host, I doubt even diehards would proffer an endorsement. Probably even fewer would admit to having a hankering for Hope, were they aware of, or further still gave credence to, alleged MKUltra activities. But the movie comedy Hope, the fourth-wall breaking, Road -travelling quipster-coward of (loosely) 1939-1952? That Hope’s a funny guy, mostly, and many of his movies during that period are hugely inventive, creative comedies that are too easily dismissed under the “Bob Hope sucks” banner. The Princess and the Pirate is one of them.

Who gave you the crusade franchise? Tell me that.

The Star Chamber (1983) (SPOILERS) Peter Hyams’ conspiracy thriller might simply have offered sauce too weak to satisfy, reining in the vast machinations of an all-powerful hidden government found commonly during ’70s fare and substituting it with a more ’80s brand that failed to include that decade’s requisite facile resolution. There’s a good enough idea here – instead of Charles Bronson, it’s the upper echelons of the legal system resorting to vigilante justice – but The Star Chamber suffers from a failure of nerve, repenting its premise just as it’s about to dig into the ramifications.

You’re going to make me drop a donkey.

Encanto (2021) (SPOILERS) By my estimation, Disney brand pictures are currently edging ahead of the Pixars. Not that there’s a whole lot in it, since neither have been at full wattage for a few years now. Raya and the Last Dragon and now Encanto are collectively just about superior to Soul and Luca . Generally, the animation arm’s attempts to take in as much cultural representation as they possibly can, to make up for their historic lack of woke quotas, has – ironically – had the effect of homogenising the product to whole new levels. So here we have Colombia, renowned the world over for the US’s benign intervention in their region, not to mention providing the CIA with subsistence income, beneficently showered with gifts from the US’s greatest artistic benefactor.