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Films
by Kathi Maio

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

I'D LIKE TO see someone give the Walt Disney Company a major environmental award. No other company can even come close to its brilliant job of recycling movie material. From its earliest days, when it really was under the leadership of Uncle Walt, the studio learned to reduce the need for full-fledged writing by reusing fairy tales (Snow White, ad nauseum) and children's classics (Pinocchio, Winnie the Pooh, etc.) for the basis of its films. But over the years, the company has become even more adept at salvage work.

Disney got into sequels and big screen/little screen cross-pollination before any of the other studios even had a clue about how profitable such antics could be. Under their various banners, they have remade "classic" movies galore, sometimes finding astounding success (Father of the Bride), and sometimes meeting deserved derision (Born Yesterday). They've updated Shakespeare into teen movies (for example, 10 Things I Hate About You) and ripped off—for a fee, of course—a great many foreign movies they had reason to believe Americans wouldn't realize were remakes (Three Men & A Baby, Just Visiting, The Associate, Jungle 2 Jungle, et al.)

In a few cases, they took the time to change the name of a remake (hence 1961's The Absent-Minded Professor became 1997's Flubber). But branding doesn't do you much good if you don't take advantage of name recognition, so most Disney remakes have kept their original titles. To mix it up a little, the House of Mouse instead takes the material from one medium to another. Why not take an animated film and turn it into a live action comedy (as in 101 and 102 Dalmatians)? Or, be really bold, and turn your feature cartoon into a Broadway musical or a traveling ice show (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King). Then there's the most astounding act of cinematic recycling yet—the transformation of a Disney amusement park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, into one of the hit movies of the summer.

You get the idea. Outside of the folks at Disney's Pixar and Miramax partners, Disney executives shudder at the idea of even approximating an original cinematic idea. And yet, as much as I have railed against sequelitis and other Hollywood maladies, I'm here to tell you that remakes aren't always a bad idea.

Case in point is a little children's novel by Mary Rodgers called Freaky Friday. Disney has filmed this particular story not once, not twice, but three times. And if practice doesn't make perfect, it is at least capable of producing an amiable and entertaining family-style fantasy film.

The original Freaky Friday (1976) has retained a certain cult video following over the years as an example of Jodie Foster's early oeuvre. With a screenplay by Rodgers herself, it is (not surprisingly) fairly faithful to the novel. A harried homemaker named Ellen Andrews (Barbara Harris) is exasperated by her pubescent daughter, Annabel (Foster), who in turn feels equally plagued by her mother's preaching about room neatness and a healthy diet. As each mutters about wishing that they could switch places for just one day, an unexplained cosmic event grants their wish—and wacky antics ensue.

Since Disney is all for a good moral-of-the-story, the movie shows Harris's teeny-bopper flipping out over wrangling household staff, and performing laundry and cooking chores. Likewise, Jodie's hausfrau is horrified by the need to play sports again. (She loses a big field hockey game by scoring a goal for the opposition.) Both suffer from the shock of having to live one another's lives, and in so doing, mother and daughter gain a new appreciation for one another's efforts and talents. (And since this is retrograde Disney, most of the new-found appreciation emanates from girl toward Mom.)

It is always mildly diverting to watch Disney try to be hip and at the same time reinforce traditional values. In the original Freaky Friday flick, the Dad of the family (played, in an odd casting choice, by John Astin) is acknowledged by both mother and daughter to be a "male chauvinist pig." But you can bet your well-appointed suburban tract home that the movie will in no way suggest that the piggy papa should change his ways. And since Disney movies of this period also have a thing for strange flying events, Mom doesn't tool around in an airborne VW or Model T, but instead takes a terrifying but ultimately triumphant hang-glide above her husband's PR event.

It's fun to see young Jodie in her tomboy phase. But, otherwise, the only significance of Freaky Friday is that it seems to have spawned a passel of TV and feature films containing familial body-switches. Some of these include Summer Switch (1983, also from a Rodgers story—this time about the father and son of the clan), Like Father, Like Son (1987), Vice Versa (1988, also father-son switch), and the grandpa-grandson switcheroo, 18 Again! (1988).

None of the aforementioned—you may be surprised to learn—were produced by Disney. But that doesn't mean that Walt's boys weren't looking to reuse their own property. During a time when Disney was producing Disney Family Movies on ABC, they decided to give Rodgers's story another go. And so a TV film, directed by Melanie Mayron and written by Stu Krieger, was produced, with Shelley Long and Gaby Hoffman in the mother-daughter roles. It was called Freaky Friday. And just to show that Disney knows how to (almost) move with the times, by 1995 Mom was a harried businesswoman working outside the home.

You'd think that dudes of the Magic Kingdom would have considered that particular story exhausted of its filmic possibilities. But if you think that, you don't know Disney. After the dawn of the new millennium, plans were made to bring Freaky Friday to the screen yet again. Writing honors went to comedy veteran Leslie Dixon and hot young writer Heather Hach. In a surprise helming move, Disney hired Mark Waters to direct. Waters was an indie darling for his debut feature, The House of Yes (1997) and an outcast for his very unfunny Hollywood romantic comedy debut, Head Over Heels (2001). Not exactly the obvious choice for the family fun of a Disney remake of a remake.

And in another surprise, the actress hired to play the latest incarnation of the stressed mother, Annette Bening, bailed on the project just days before production was to begin.

A tired retread that a well-paid lead actor walks away from? Doesn't sound like screen magic in the making. But darned if Mr. Waters and his writers didn't pull it off. With a lot of help from a pinch-hitting Mom and a teenage Disney remake veteran.

Jamie Lee Curtis is the woman who took over the role of Freaky Friday's mom, and it's hard to picture an actor more perfect for the role. Curtis has always been gorgeous and sexy, but also very authentic, and more than willing to make a fool of herself. (Jamie Lee's in-her-undies-with-no-makeup shoot for More magazine last year is proof positive of this.) Moreover, there is something very vital and eternally youthful about Ms. Curtis. When she (supposedly occupied by her daughter's persona) makes goo-goo eyes at a high school hottie played by Chad Michael Murray, we are not at all surprised when the young man makes goo-goo eyes back. Who wouldn't be smitten by Jamie Lee?

Curtis is also good in her adult role as Tess Coleman, the widowed and overextended psychotherapist and author coping with client anxieties and her children's concerns, all the while planning her re-marriage to a sensitive new-age (and underwritten) guy played by Mark Harmon. But Curtis only plays the very adult Tess for a few scenes at the beginning and end of Freaky Friday. The rest of the time that role is played by an actor of equal charm and talent, Ms. Lindsay Lohan.

At the tender age of seventeen, Lohan is an old hand at both remaking Disney family comedies and playing dual roles. She earned her stripes doing a 1998 remake of the Hayley Mills 1961 Disney favorite The Parent Trap. Five years ago, she played identical twins separated at birth—one of whom speaks with a British accent! Compared to that, playing a frazzled middle-aged woman was a piece of cake. Or at least young Lindsay makes it look effortless.

With two strong leads in the mother-daughter roles, all the filmmakers needed to do was give their actors something interesting to do. Waters and his writers actually managed this incredible feat. Wisely, they minimized the sentimental until the last couple of scenes, and even more prudently, they jettisoned the zany stuntwork altogether. The comedy in this Freaky Friday works because we are given a chance to see the two women live in one another's skins while coping with semi-believable situations. There are pratfalls and double takes, but the action never strays into the preposterous… except for the basic fantasy conceit of the plotline. (And fantasy works best when it is grounded in some kind of reality.)

As for the cosmic body-switch, this time out it seems to have something to do with an old Chinese restaurateur (Lucille Soong) and her mystical fortune cookies. I could have done without this particular bit of "updating," I must say. To see a wonderful actor like Rosalind Chao playing Pei-Pei, the old cookie-giver's daughter, as a goofy, grasping Chinese stereotype was not my favorite part of the film. And part of me wishes the film could have been a little riskier with the implications—sexual and otherwise—of an intriguing mother-daughter body switch.

But, heck, if it went to the really scary and thought-provoking places, it wouldn't be a Disney film. Studio Mouseketeers may update the slang and the motherly occupation in one of their remakes, and they may even transform a tomboy jock daughter into an alt-rocker wannabe. But a Disney film is just not designed to challenge a viewer in any significant way. Besides simple corporate greed and lack of imagination, there might actually be a rhyme and a reason for Disney's penchant for recycling old material. There is comfort and continuity in the familiar, after all. And as long as a retelling of a recognizable story has enough freshness and energy to charm us anew, that may be all an audience needs. Or, at least all they can hope for.

In the case of 2003's Freaky Friday, Disney has proven that three times really is the charm. This is the best telling yet of an old familiar body-switch tale. For many of the world's more discriminating moviegoers, that just won't be good enough. As for me, I was happy in this case to enjoy the performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan in a Disney refurbishing of yet another one of their dusted-off properties.

Meanwhile, while we weren't looking, Disney has recycled Tron (1982) into a video game called Tron 2.0. "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle"—they're words to live (and make a profit) by!

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