There is a new Harry Potter movie out this week, which millions of fans are extremely excited about, even though they’ve all read the books and know exactly what’s going to happen. Also, they don’t seem to mind that it’s based on the one that was mostly flashbacks, meaning there’s less Harry than in the other movies – although we do get to see young Dumbledore, who, rumor has it, looks exactly like Chris Pine.
I’ve read all the books, and one thing I enjoyed about them was the way J.K. Rowling wove the world of magic so cleverly in with our own. Somehow, the wizardry practiced and taught at Hogwarts seems to make logical sense – it propels the story while at the same time serving as a sharp satire of academia, and as an added plus it steers unsuspecting young readers toward godless occult practices. Wait, wasn’t that the idea?
Regardless, in the Harry Potter films, such a rich and layered portrayal of the existence of magic is unusual for cinema – mainly because the role magic usually plays in movies is, of course, the handy plot device. With that in mind, here’s another look at five movies that, if it weren’t for magic, would have ended after 12 minutes. (And in some cases, we would have been better off.)
Mannequin (1987): There’s so much to love in this movie about a department store mannequin that comes magically to life. And by “love,” I of course mean, “hate with the red-hot fury of a thousand suns.”
OK, that may be a bit strong – I doubt anybody has ever gotten that worked up about Mannequin. And it does have a few things going for it, such as the fact that when the mannequin comes to life, it does so as Kim Cattrall. But if you don’t think that this movie is even worse than you remember, I suggest you take a break from this post and watch the entire movie in 10-minute chunks on YouTube, and then come back here if you haven’t killed yourself by the time you get to part five. I have a feeling I won’t be seeing you again.
Apparently the magic in this movie comes from an ancient Egyptian curse or something like that, and it must have been some pretty potent stuff, because it seemed to cast a horrible spell on Andrew McCarthy’s career. Luckily Cattrall was able bounce back in “Sex and the City,” and James Spader has managed to go more than 20 years without anyone remembering he was in this. And Meshach Taylor is still the go-to actor for anyone casting a character that’s an unholy amalgam of Elton John, Clarence Clemons and Richard Simmons.
Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971): To start off, I think it’s appropriate to point out that back in the day, Angela Lansbury was, well … a bit of a looker. That’s right, I said it: Mrs. Potts was hot.
Unfortunately, she can’t quite save this Disney trifle, which is pretty much exactly like Mary Poppins if Mary Poppins didn’t have Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, appealing child actors or any memorable songs. Or a point. But it does have Poppins’ Mr. Banks, David Tomlinson (a few pounds heavier and clearly in need of a paycheck) as a hack magician who doesn’t know the spells he’s peddling actually work, and the obligatory extended sequence where people sing and dance with cartoon characters.
Throw in a flying bed and all those English accents and it’s actually a jolly good way to spend a rainy afternoon, if you’re 6 and you’ve already seen Mary Poppins so many times that you can say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious backwards. (Which of course is dociousallaexpilisticfragiicaliupus, but that’s going a bit too far, don’t you think?)
All of Me (1984): For some reason this film doesn’t seem to come up very often when people recall their favorite Steve Martin movies – they’re either married to the image of Martin collecting up all his personal belongings in The Jerk (“The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need”) or they claim he was simply brilliant as the murder suspect dentist in Novocaine, which nobody actually saw, ever.
But I beg you to re-watch at least the 20 minutes of All of Me immediately after the soul of Lily Tomlin’s Edwina Cutwater is magically transferred into his character’s body, and tell me that Martin – in addition to being intellectually droll enough to warrant regular last-page space in the New Yorker – isn’t the most gifted physical comedian to come along the pike since Buster Keaton.
In fact, his effort here puts to shame a performance in another magic-themed movie that owes a lot to All of Me: Jim Carrey’s in Liar Liar, which recycles much of Martin’s physical shtick but can’t quite match the original movie’s heart or inventiveness. (They even share an actor, Jason Bernard, although by Liar Liar he had been promoted from blind musician to judge.)
At least All of Me has a swami (the fabulous Richard Libertini) to hitch its magic to, whereas Liar Liar actually resorts to a birthday candle wish. What’s next, Wish Bone, The Movie?
Weird Science (1985): Now, this was probably the movie the makers of Mannequin had in mind when they sat down to make their creating-woman-from-scratch film. If only they hadn’t subtracted everything that was clever, sexy and, well, weird about this John Hughes classic, which I would place way ahead of Uncle Buck in the Hughes oeuvre. And yes, I just said “Hughes oeuvre.”
The magic in this movie is ostensibly a mixture of science and the patented freaky electrical storm (maybe it had some cosmic rays, like the one in Fantastic Four?), but let’s face it, when Kelly LeBrock appears out of nowhere in white crop top and blue panties, and can produce a car and fake IDs and turn Bill Paxton into a little Jabba the Hutt, that’s magic.
All this and Robert Downey Jr. too; sorry, but he officially out-Spaders Spader.
Pleasantville (1998): This movie – about a brother and sister transported into a 1950s TV show by a magic remote control provided to them by Don Knotts – has a lot to recommend it. For one, you get to see Tobey Maguire pre-Spider-Man, and Reese Witherspoon before she took over the world (or at least Hollywood). Plus, well, Don Knotts. It’s no The Incredible Mr. Limpet, but I’d still put it ahead of The Ghost and Mr. Chicken in the Knotts oeuvre. And yes, I just said “Knotts oeuvre.”
Of course, once the pair gets to Pleasantville (the town and the show), they discover that a perfect utopian existence is not all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, all the fire department knows how to do is save cats. Plus, the only way to turn things color is to pleasure yourself in a bathtub. I’m simplifying a little bit.
Unfortunately things get a little heavy-handed toward the end – Tobey & Co. must end prejudice against the “colored” people … get it? – but as movies where people are magically transported into old TV shows go, it’s a classic of the genre. By the way, Don Knotts’ greatest contribution to popular culture: Barney Fife or Mr. Furley? Discuss.
(Dis)honorable mention: Almost every body swap movie ever made. This is a genre that deserves a swift and merciful death. Let’s face it, for every Freaky Friday there’s an 18 Again!; for every Big (not even technically a body swap movie – it’s a body change movie) there’s a Dream a Little Dream. The magic is almost always lame – in Dream a Little Dream it’s a bike accident that causes the switch (?) – and besides, once Rob Schneider gets around to bludgeoning a concept to death, like he did in The Hot Chick (via enchanted earrings, natch), it’s time to call it a day.
As for Harry Potter, I’m sure the magic he displays in The Half Blood Prince will be a cut above enchanted earrings. Or at least I’m willing to go see it and find out – even if I do know how it ends, I’ll admit it’s a kick to see his adventures unfurl onscreen.
And if afterwards I have an unexplainable urge to tattoo a pentagram on my forehead, that’s just an added plus!
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