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

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas