Thursday, August 24, 2017

Homeward Bound 2: Lost In San Francisco + Noises Off...

(G, Walt Disney Pictures, 89 mins., theatrical release date: Mar. 8, 1996)

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey caught me by surprise all over again when I revisited it a month ago. The film's main ingredients provoked the same stimuli the 9-year-old version of myself received back in '93, from the perils of the Pacific Northwest to the pugnacity of the voice actors. I recalled every wisecrack, every ancillary critter, every moment wood beams gave out from under the animals. And it didn't wear out its welcome, even managing to restore the lump in my throat I once had when Peter Seaver waited for his aged but persistent golden retriever companion, Shadow. Realizing that it came from the man who cut both Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart was simply one of the perks of adulthood.

Fond memories of the original aside, it seems that remaking the live-action Disney movie of 20 years' past was perhaps its biggest coup. In the same year Homeward Bound premiered, Look Who's Talking Now! and Beethoven's 2nd demonstrated just how limited the concept of unleashed pets loose in wide metropolitan spaces was, what with their unavoidable debts to earlier Disney animated masterpieces Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco has a title/concept eerily similar to that of another, more high-profile kiddie flick sequel. And while it avoids the orange elephant which floats into the room whenever anybody now brings up Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (or The Little Rascals), the misadventures this time around are the very same classic Disney staples other studios nicked back in 1993.

Shadow, Chance the braggart bulldog & the aptly-named Sassy the cat are once again on a mission to reunite with the Seaver (nee Burnford) clan, who this time try to accommodate the pets by taking them on their vacation to Canada. With the exception of Ralph Waite, who ably fills in for the departed Don Ameche, the voices of Chance (Michael J. Fox) and Sassy (Sally Field) as well the entire principal cast (Robert Hays, Kim Greist, Benji Thall, Kevin Chevalia, and Veronica Lauren) are accounted for. This time it's Chance, still afraid of the dread pound (referred to here as "the bad place"), who instigates the pets' escape from their freight cages and away from the airport, their combined twelve paws leading them to the heart of San Francisco and in pursuit of the golden bridge that will safely maneuver them back home.

Their less-than-harrowing obstacles include sparring bands of street mutts, a friendly super-pack and a diabolical if dopey duo (voices of Jon Polito and Adam Goldberg), as well as the ever present danger of dog-snatchers prowling about in a "blood-red van" collecting lab specimens. The expanding roster of fur balls includes Riley (voiced by Sinbad), a crossbred canine less dependent on humans than Shadow; Delilah (voiced by Carla Gugino), a plucky stray Kuvasz who falls in love with mongrel-for-life Chance; and Bando (voiced by Stephen Tobolowsky), a coonhound swain. There is a rousing comeuppance or two as well as a heroic detour for Shadow and Sassy in the vein of the missing Molly from the last film, this time the result of a fire started by the two creeps in the red van.

With Caroline Thompson transitioning to director (Black Beauty, Buddy), Linda Woolverton riding the wave of success from The Lion King and Duwayne Dunham crossing back over into television (his last theatrical gig being Little Giants), the creative team of the original is missed. The belabored screenplay of Homeward Bound 2 instead falls to Julie Hickson, a Tim Burton collaborator from his embryonic career at Disney and of far less renown than Ms. Thompson, and Chris Hauty, whose claim to fame is as the writer of Never Back Down. Hickson and Hauty overwork the bickering which enlivened the first film to the detriment of both the story and the stars. Sally Field, regrettably, turns positively shrewish because of the pervasively arch inner dialogue Sassy is given. That the humble Shadow has to issue more than three exasperated ultimatums is indicative of the quality of writing here: thoroughly unimaginative in developing the conflict between the domesticated heroes and the mangier supporting pooches as well as the adorable Chance/Delilah courtship.

Just as the first film surprised me upon learning of Dunham's connection with David Lynch, Homeward Bound 2 is helmed by another peculiar candidate for a family film: the late David R. Ellis. This was actually his first film after a long career as stuntman, and Ellis kept active in second unit work even while making his bones with schlock horror, including two Final Destination sequels and the pre-Sharknado sensation that was Snakes on a Plane. As much as I want to be respectful of Mr. Ellis, who deserved better than to go out on Shark Night 3-D, he is a lesser breed of filmmaker than Dunham. Sentimentality is not his strong suit, as evidenced by a feeble subplot in which Chance is realizing that baseball buff Jamie is beginning to outgrow games of fetch. The human drama is deader weight here than before. And when I think of the increased voiceover work here, I find a director who has less confidence in balancing genuine animal acting with the spoken thoughts of the animals.

Not that there aren't some tasty bits in the kibble, like when Chance observes a mass of seals and takes it as proof of what happens when dogs stay in water for too long. The way he verbalizes heartbreak, combining three nightmare scenarios, is also commendable. And there is a sublime use of three actual sports commentators, weighing in as Chance sabotages one of Jamie's games. The entire roster of voice stars do, once you get past the script (which antes up the lame Schwarzenegger puns and hydrant-level scatology), come across as lively and cordial; even Shadow gets in a nice joke fitting for an old-timer such as himself. But take away the narration and Homeward Bound 2: Lost in San Francisco will have you asking "Are we there yet?" too early and too frequently, which isn't the way for anyone to rediscover their inner child.

(PG-13, Touchstone Pictures, 101 mins., theatrical release date: Mar. 20, 1992)

Annie Potts was the initial voice of Sassy when Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey "wrapped" in 1992, before Disney secured Sally Field as a replacement. But the Ghostbusters comedienne was also one of dozens of stars to be considered for the role Glenn Close immortalized in Fatal Attraction, and she was slated to reunite with Peter Bogdanovich a year after Texasville (the Last Picture Show sequel in which Potts played Jeff Bridges' wife) for the Amblin-produced film version of Michael Frayn's Broadway smash Noises Off. Alas, Potts was replaced by Marilu Henner and I haven't been able to find any reason as to why. 'Tis a pity, since Bogdanovich gathered the greatest comic dream team this side of 1985's Clue, even trading up in talent (Michael Caine > Martin Mull) when not finding adequate matches (Colleen Camp = Nicollette Sheridan).

That Bogdanovich puts his own ensemble through the same panicked, frantic and m-m-m-m-manic paces like Jonathan Lynn did in his overpraised board game spin-off is inevitable given his film's origin. Frayn's three-part deconstruction of a British sex farce, all slamming doors and swollen misunderstandings and polite innuendos, was informed by the unruly dynamics within its troupe of dysfunctional day players. First was a twilight-hour dress rehearsal before the premiere in which the stars are already on shaky ground and the director is driven to his wit's end. Then came a matinee performance aimed at the seniors wherein all involved are at each other's throats. Finally, an ad-libbed Armageddon of an evening show rife with defective props and irrevocable shifts away from character. "On we bloodily stagger," proclaims the show's irritable guv'nor, not immune to the bedlam he's brought upon himself and his clueless cast.

In Marty Kaplan's scripted adaptation, the setting shifts from the U.K. hinterland to the American heartland, beginning and ending on the Great White Way itself. Lloyd Fellowes (Michael Caine) recollects the three doomed stagings as he anticipates the worst in NYC. His perpetually aloof charges include aging star attraction Dotty Otley (Carol Burnett), who's gambling her retirement on the show's success while playing housekeeper Mrs. Clackett; Garry Lejeune (John Ritter), who is lascivious realtor Roger Tramplemain onstage and Dotty's possessive boy toy off of it; Frederick Dallas (Christopher Reeve), in the role of tax exile Philip Brent, who is pacifistic to the point of nosebleeds but naïve enough to end up a third wheel in Garry and Dotty's tempestuous affair; Belinda Blair/Flavia Brent (Marilu Henner), who dishes the dirt and proves an ineffectual if perky peacekeeper; Brooke Ashton (Nicollette Sheridan), a shortsighted bombshell who is dating her director whilst acting the part of Roger's ripe IRS secretary lover Vicki; and Selsdon Mowbray (Denholm Elliott), a showbiz friend of Dotty's whose performance as a doddering burglar is sabotaged by his own bottomless thirst for whiskey and short-term memory.

Lloyd tries to choreograph the melee of "Nothing On" but cannot handle dueling relationships with Brooke and stage manager/scapegoat Poppy Taylor (Julie Hagerty), whereas Poppy's assistant Tim Allgood (Mark Linn-Baker) is operating on little sleep and smaller reserves of capability. These nine personalities fall prey to the spiraling jealousies and deficiencies which obliterate whatever tenuous claims of professionalism they can claim.

Michael Frayn's Tony-certified Noises Off has the kind of bulletproof comic scenarios which are precise enough to survive even the lousiest revival. As the group rehearses in Des Moines, four of the actors stall the all-important farcical flow to question their motivation in the most imbecilic of ways, from Garry's mild-mannered vagueness (one of his more coherent gripes: "Lloyd, these damn sardines!") to Frederick's immaculately-sculpted timidity to Brooke's flighty tinge of doubt just as Act 1 is nearly complete. Hell breaks loose backstage two months later in Miami Beach, with the cuckolded Garry having regressed into a vengeful trickster, the self-absorbed Lloyd making an ass of himself every opportunity and everyone trying to prevent Selsdon from drifting off in a drunken stupor. By the time they get to Cleveland, every established flaw either takes its logical toll or comes back with a vengeance, from stuck doors to hazardous props to Dotty's full-fledged mental breakdown in front of a live theatre audience.

Peter Bogdanovich brings out the giddy worst in his all-star assemblage. John Ritter (of Bogdanovich's Nickelodeon and They All Laughed) does his sharpest variation on his man-overboard routine, tumbling down stairways and baiting his co-stars with tremendous energy. Ditto an equally game Christopher Reeve, his self-effacing matinee idol bearing the brunt of the many pants-down blunders. Julie Hagerty suffers smartly and Nicollette Sheridan stumbles sexily. Denholm Elliott, who sadly passed away from AIDS in 1992, makes a great wag and Carol Burnett, in a welcome cinematic return since owning Miss Hannigan for John Huston, burlesques as peerlessly as ever. Excepting the presence of two Brits and one Britt, Burnett's over-the-top Cockney accent comes closest to comic gold amongst her Anglo co-stars; and when it drops, she has the power to take the house along with it.

All that good stuff out of the way, however, Bogdanovich's and Kaplan's translation of Noises Off comes up short not unlike the dramaturgy Frayn lampooned. That rickety framing device centering on Michael Caine is overwhelmed by the star's cuddly lecherous charisma as Lloyd, and even that cannot fully mitigate his accountability in these blazing fiascos. Frayn had the good sense to paint Lloyd as one more bullheaded diva, his screaming complacency making him worthy of sinking along with the passengers of his own Titanic. The fluffier take Caine (and to be fair, the entire cast) is saddled with leads to a self-congratulatory and unconvincing curtain call which is more fitting with the legacy of Frayn's play rather than its content. "There's nowhere to go but up" is a Broadway Melody which doesn't mesh with the chaotic rhythm, the filmic equivalent of overlaying an Ignacio Herb Brown tune over a random snatch of Metal Machine Music.

Bogdanovich's fixed camera is willing, but the spirit is weak thanks to such nagging artificialities as canned laughter and reaction shots, which doesn't expand the material for the big screen so much as kowtow to its smaller competition. Faithful to Frayn's libretto as he and Kaplan are, the theatricality endemic to the material becomes the film in rather staid ways. It doesn't set one up for the victory lap to come nor provide these fine actors with enough material to invest us when said coda intrudes. Noises Off is the funnier, more together alternative to Clue due in no small part to what worked so exquisitely the first time, and I'd rather Bogdanovich than Chris Columbus, for damn sure. But more so than the loss of Annie Potts, I mourn having to slot Noises Off into Hollywood's same "It Was a Good Idea at the Time?" file as Rent.

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