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.

 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

He’s probably paranoid, high-strung, doesn’t like daylight. You know, has a lot of crumbs in his beard, if he has a beard.

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) (SPOILERS) I’d like to report I had a blast with Godzilla vs. Kong . It’s lighter on its oversized, city-stomping feet than its slog of a MonsterVerse predecessor, Godzilla: King of the Monsters , and there are flashes of visual inspiration along with several engaging core ideas (which, to be fair, the series had already laid the seeds for). But this sequel still stumbles in its chief task: assembling an engaging, lively story that successfully integrates both tiny humans and towering titans.

It's Dark Age, by Jupiter!

The Dig (2021) (SPOILERS) An account of the greatest archaeological find Britain would know until Professor Horner opened the barrow at Devil’s End. And should you scoff at such “ fiction ”, that’s nothing on this adaptation of John Preston’s 2007 novel concerning the Sutton Hoo excavations of the late 1930s. The Dig , as is the onus of any compelling fictional account, takes liberties with the source material, but the erring from the straight and narrow in this case is less an issue than the shift in focus from characters and elements successfully established during the first hour.

You stink, my friend.

Mulan (2020) (SPOILERS) Let that be a lesson to Disney. It’s a fool’s errand to try and beat the Chinese at their own game, no matter how painstakingly respectful – or rather, pandering – you are. Indeed, Mulan ’s abysmal $40m box office take in the country – where it did get a proper release, so no plandemic excuses can be cited – feels like a direct rebuke; don’t try and tell us how to suck eggs. There’s an additional explanation too, of course. That Mulan sucks.

Roswell was a smokescreen, we've had a half a dozen better salvage operations.

The X-Files 1.24: The Erlenmeyer Flask The Erlenmeyer Flask makes for a fast-paced, tense and eventful ride, but does it make any sense? That less than mattered at the time, but revisiting the mythology arc (for probably the fourth or fifth time) reveals increasingly tenuous internal coherence as the various conspiracy elements begin to pile up and the situations become ever-more convoluted. This will become the Chris Carter’s signature: don’t examine the details too closely, go with the flow. Trust Chris implicitly.

UFO IN MOSSINGHAM?

A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2020) (SPOILERS) One might reasonably suggest the recourse of the ailing or desperate franchise is to resort, seemingly out of nowhere, to space aliens. Even Police Academy didn’t go that far (to Moscow, yes, but not to space). Perhaps animators think kids have no skills of discernment and will swallow any old sugar-coated crap. Perhaps they don’t, and they will. Ice Age had been enjoying absurd success until Collision Course sent Scrat spinning into the cosmos and grosses tumbled. Shaun the Sheep has been around for a quarter of a century, but this is only his second movie outing and already he’s pulling an E.T. on us. Of course, this may all be part of the grand scheme, and Nick Park is simply doing his bit to familiarise the tots in time for Project Blue Beam.

Our "Bullshit!" team has unearthed spectacular new evidence, which suggests, that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, the Loch Ness Monster.

Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) Cheeseburger Film Sandwich . Apparently, that’s what the French call Amazon Women on the Moon . Except that it probably sounds a little more elegant, since they’d be saying it in French (I hope so, anyway). Given the title, it should be no surprise that it is regarded as a sequel to Kentucky Fried Movie . Which, in some respects, it is. John Landis originally planned to direct the whole of Amazon Women himself, but brought in other directors due to scheduling issues. The finished film is as much of a mess as Kentucky Fried Movie , arrayed with more miss sketches than hit ones, although it’s decidedly less crude and haphazard than the earlier picture. Some have attempted to reclaim Amazon Women as a dazzling satire on TV’s takeover of our lives, but that’s stretching it. There is a fair bit of satire in there, but the filmmakers were just trying to be funny; there’s no polemic or express commentary. But even on such moderate t

Careful how much boat you’re eating.

Onward (2020) (SPOILERS) Pixar’s Bright , or thereabouts. The interesting thing – perhaps the only interesting thing – about Onward is that it’s almost indiscernible from a DreamWorks Animation effort, where once they cocked a snook at such cheap-seats fare, seeing themselves as better class of animation house altogether. Just about everything in Onward is shamelessly derivative, from the Harry Potter /fantasy genre cash-in to the use of the standard Pixar formula whereby any scenario remotely eccentric or exotic is buried beneath the banal signifiers of modern society: because anything you can imagine must be dragged down to tangible everyday reference points or kids won’t be able to assimilate it. And then there’s the choice of lead voices, in-Disney star-slaves Chris Pratt and Tom Holland.

By heaven, I’d thrash the life out of you… if I didn’t have to read the Nine O’Clock News.

The Green Man (1956) (SPOILERS) The Green movie from Launder and Gilliat starring Alastair Sim that isn’t Green for Danger. Which is to say, The Green Man can’t quite scale the heady heights of that decade-earlier murder mystery triumph, but neither is it any slouch. Sim is the antagonist this time – albeit a very affable, Sim-ish one – and his sometime protégée, a young George Cole, the hero. If the plot is entirely absurd, Robert Day’s movie wastes no time probing such insufficiencies, ensuring it is very funny, lively and beautifully performed.

Well, I’ll be damned. It’s the gentleman guppy.

Waterworld (1995) (SPOILERS) The production and budgetary woes of “ Kevin’s Gate ” will forever overshadow the movie’s content (and while it may have been the most expensive movie ever to that point – adjusted for inflation, it seems only Cleopatra came close – it has since turned a profit). However, should you somehow manage to avoid the distraction of those legendary problems, the real qualitative concerns are sure to come sailing over the cognitive horizon eventually; Waterworld is just so damned derivative. It’s a seafaring Mad Max. Peter Rader, who first came up with the idea in 1986, admitted as much. David Twohy, who later came aboard, also cited Mad Max 2 ; that kind of rip-off aspect – Jaws birthing Piranha – makes it unsurprising Waterworld was once under consideration by Roger Corman (he couldn’t cost it cheaply enough). Ultimately, there’s never a sufficient sense the movie has managed to become its own thing. Which is a bummer, because it’s frequently quite good fun.

Wow. Asteroids are made of farts. Okay. I got it.

Greenland (2020) (SPOILERS) Global terror porn for overpopulation adherents as Gerard Butler and his family do their darnedest to reach the safety of a bunker in the titular country in the face of an imminent comet impact. Basically, what if 2012 were played straight? These things come to test cinemas in cycles, of course. Sean Connery struggled with a duff rug and a stack of mud in Meteor , while Deep Impact plumbed for another dread comet and Armageddon an asteroid. The former, owing to the combined forces of Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, was a – relatively – more meditative fare. The latter was directed by Michael Bay. And then there’s Roland Emmerich, who having hoisted a big freeze on us in The Day After Tomorrow then wreaked a relatively original source of devastation in the form of 2012 ’s overheating Earth’s core. Greenland , meanwhile, is pretty much what you’d expect from the director of Angel Has Fallen .