Saturday, April 4, 2009

Flubber (Disney, 1997)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Flubber was Walt Disney Production’s 1997 remake of the 1961 The Absent-Minded Professor, itself based on a short story by Samuel W. Taylor called “A Condition of Gravity.” Richard Schickel’s biography The Disney Version said that the 1961 version was one of Walt Disney’s most personal films, and that the central character of Professor Brainard (his first name was “Ned” when Fred MacMurray played him in 1961 and “Philip” when Robin Williams played him in 1997) was based on Disney’s father, the unworldly inventor and tinkerer Elias P. Disney. (Erik Larson’s book The Devil in the White City drew an interesting connection between the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and Disneyland; it seems that among the many workers hired to build the World’s fair was Elias P. Disney, and he never tired of telling his sons Roy and Walt how beautiful it had been … and supposedly Walt carried his dad’s tales in his consciousness for decades and they inspired the design and appearance of Disneyland.)

In both movies, Prof. Brainard more-or-less accidentally invents a super-pliable, metastable solid named “Flubber” (“flying rubber” — I was amused to note that the French title for Flubber was Plaxmol!) and uses it to make his car fly, enable the basketball team at the college that employs him to win a game by putting flubber on their shoes so they jump faster and higher than anyone could naturally, and save the college from going out of business. In Flubber, Robin Williams plays the professor, and while he’s not as deadpan as MacMurray he’s a good deal funnier and seems to have taken this role at least in part to prove that he could still outdo Jim Carrey at physical comedy even though by then Williams was middle-aged. There are other changes; the Flubber itself has far more of a personality this time — in one scene it gets out, divides itself into pieces and stages its own Busby Berkeley-style production number to a tune by the film’s composer, Danny “Boingo” Elfman, called “The Flubber Mambo” (I’m not making this up, you know!), and even when it isn’t going that far to anthropomorphize itself it still has a way of forming itself into a vaguely human shape and even speaking (in the dubbed voice of Scott Martin Gershin).

Flubber is also considerably higher-tech than the previous version — though the Macintosh Plus computer Prof. Brainard works on at home is quite anachronistic for 1997 and only a sign with a Web address betrays the existence of the Internet — mainly because Brainard has two computer pals who help him maintain his home and his schedule. One, Weber, is a speech-less drone whose function is to clean his house; the other, Weebo (voiced by Jodi Benson), is sort of Tinker Bell to Brainard’s Peter Pan (also, you’ll recall, a role played by Robin Williams: in the film Hook!), a general factotum who keeps his schedule, does odd jobs around the house, and even shows him film clips (and not just from Disney films, either — working on the licensing for this film must have been a nightmare!) that mirror his current emotional state. The plot also contains the conceit that the absent-minded professor is so absent-minded that he can’t even remember to attend his wedding; he’s engaged to marry the college’s woman president, Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden), but at the time the film begins he’s already abandoned her at the altar twice and she’s made up her mind that if he does it again, the engagement is off. Of course, the afternoon of their wedding he’s actually in his garage laboratory inventing Flubber, but her will is implacable and she not only dumps him, she accepts the proposal of the smarmy villain Wilson Croft (Christopher McDonald), who’s sort of like the Kent Smith character in The Fountainhead: he’s become rich, powerful and influential by stealing Brainard’s ideas and taking credit for them himself.

Actually he’s not the principal villain; that’s Chester Hoenicker (Raymond Barry), who lent the college a large sum of money in exchange for which his son Bennett (Wil Wheaton) was supposed to be given a free ride through his academics so he could play basketball and get into Harvard Business School. Only Brainard, having the same sort of integrity Ray Walston’s character had in the otherwise unwatchable Tall Story, has bravely given Bennett a flunking grade in chemistry and thus disqualified him from school athletics — so Chester announces that he’s calling the school’s loan, which will force it to close altogether at the end of the school year. It all ends happily, of course, with Brainard successfully marketing his invention, he and Sara Jean getting back together, the college being saved and Chester Hoenicker’s henchmen, Smith (Clancy Brown) and Wesson (Ted Levine) — their names are a clever touch in a script by John Hughes (yes, that John Hughes — the Pretty in Pink/Breakfast Club/Ferris Bueller’s Day Off John Hughes) and Bill Walsh that is otherwise pretty predictable — and even Weebo, who gets a Peter Pan-esque death scene (I couldn’t help but joke, “Clap three times if you believe in … robots”) and actually expires, but not before uploading a replacement “daughter” of herself, Weebette (voiced by Julie Morrison).

The earlier parts of the film suggest that Weebo is actually jealous of Sara Jean and is deliberately helping make sure Brainard doesn’t remember their wedding dates, but little or nothing is made of this potentially charming plot complication — and in a 1997 movie the idea of the professor trolling around in a Model “T” Ford as Fred MacMurray did in the original version would have seemed impossibly retro, so Williams’ incarnation of Brainard gets to drive (and fly) a late-1950’s Ford Thunderbird convertible. There’s also a character identified simply as “Window Boy” (Benjamin Brock), who has no other plot function except to happen to be looking out the window as Brainard and/or Flubber are doing something particularly outrageous and run screaming to his parents, who of course blow him off and tell him there’s nothing out there for him to be frightened about. Flubber isn’t a great comedy, and it probably would have been better if Williams had made it about 10 to 15 years earlier (when he wouldn’t have had to rely so heavily on digital effects and stunt people to do his pratfalls for him), but it’s still good fun.