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And the Hollywood Raths Outgrabe
IT IS WITH ten parts dread to every one part anticipation that science fiction and fantasy fans learn that one of our classic novels or stories is about to be adapted for the big screen. Although we'd love to see our beloved favorite brought to life, we are rightly skeptical of Hollywood's ability (or fortitude) to do the job right.
I could at this point digress into a litany of all the cinematic outrages that we have had to endure. But even if I limited the discussion to the last ten years, my list and blow-by-blow indignation would require a book length treatise. So, instead, I will just skip to a discussion of the adaptation at hand, and that is a reworking of the classic 1943 short story "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) into a recent family film entitled The Last Mimzy.
Judging from the two titles alone, we can guess that this will not be a particularly faithful adaptation and that some changes will seem irrational and completely unnecessary. For example, in an insult not just to Mr. Kuttner, but also to the great Lewis Carroll—whose "Jabberwocky" provides the original story's title—Mimsy is changed from an adjective to a noun in the movie. And for some unknown flippin' reason the spelling is changed from a "sy" ending to a "zy."
But hold on, my dear readers! If I allow myself to get this nitpicky about this film, even this one review will turn into a book length treatise. So let's move along. At least as far as a brief discussion of the gentlemen behind the movie.
The Last Mimzy is one of those movies with a painfully long gestation period. (Usually a bad sign.) The script went through some nineteen drafts by five writers over a twelve-year period. The screenplay credits finally went to the often death-obsessed scribe Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Jacob's Ladder, My Life, Deep Impact) and New Line Cinema executive turned scripter (Frequency), Toby Emmerich.
As you might guess, The Last Mimzy was released by New Line Cinema, where Mr. Emmerich is currently President of Production. And he isn't the only New Line exec to take a busman's holiday by assuming an actual filmmaker role in one of the studio's movies. In fact, the director of The Last Mimzy is none other than New Line co-founder, co-chairman and co-CEO, Bob Shaye.
Although Mr. Shaye is primarily known as a man who knows how to market populist schlock movie franchises like Nightmare on Elm Street, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Final Destination, and Austin Powers to the masses, he actually started out distributing edgy indie—although equally schlocky—fare like John Waters's Pink Flamingos (1972). More recently New Line has released interesting and intelligent features like A History of Violence (2005) and Little Children (2006) along with the countless dumb and dumber flicks like, you guessed it, Dumb and Dumber (1994) and its pale imitator, Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd (2003).
For science fiction fans Mr. Shaye is best known as the man who watched Peter Jackson's pitch reel for a Lord of the Rings two-part movie (which had been rejected by most of Hollywood) and not only gave it a green light, but financed it for a three-film cycle. Riches, Oscars, Litigation, and Blood Feuds followed, in that order.
What does any of this have to do with The Last Mimzy? Not a heck of a lot, except to say that film critics sometimes know too much about the provenance of a movie going in. That makes us even more jaundiced and suspicious and likely to dismiss a film before we give it a chance. And when it comes to a movie written by committee and directed by a studio head, well, let me just admit that my mind was reeling in horror even before I entered the theater.
That admission over, I'll now say that I was pleasantly surprised by The Last Mimzy. Oh, it will outrage any reader requiring a literal rendering of the Padgett story. Likewise, the movie's sometimes jarring components are not only indicative of its surfeit of scripters, but also of a corporate mindset that wants to make a movie by recipe (give me some of the government bad guys from E.T., then let's throw in a cute stuffed critter who is much more, like in A.I ., etc., etc.)
And yet…. And yet…. If you can turn off the voices that murmur all the reasons there are to dislike this film, you will find that it actually works as entertainment.
Set in modern-day Seattle, The Last Mimzy follows a brother and sister a few years older than the original story's tykes. Ten-year-old Noah Wilder (Chris O'Neill) and his five-year-old sister, Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn), seem like normal upper-middle-class kids until they find a mysterious box during an Easter vacation on Whidbey Island. The contents are odd but not totally unfamiliar looking: a green translucent circuit board affair, a shivering blob that looks like a half-filled water balloon, a geode-looking rock that breaks apart, something that looks like a sea shell, and an old-fashioned-looking bunny rabbit doll that Emma immediately adopts and dubs Mimzy.
The children are reluctant to share their discovery with their mother (Joely Richardson) and busy dad (Timothy Hutton)—especially after Mom dismisses one magical toy as a worthless paperweight. As a logical adult, she only sees a small slab of slate, but the children see the magic in these objects, and learn from them.
And we're not just talking about your standard elementary school lessons, either. Before long, both children are showing a talent for telekinesis, and Noah is winning the local science fair with his ability to control spiders and make them work together to build a super-strong tunnel-like web bridge. That bridge design has Noah's hippie science teacher, Larry White (The Office's Rainn Wilson), murmuring words like "genius." He is also blown away by Noah's latest doodles, which are exact copies of Tibetan sacred mandalas that the teacher saw in Nepal—and in his recurring dreams.
When White tells his fiancée, Naomi (Crossing Jordan's Kathryn Hahn), about this, she encourages White and the children's increasingly worried parents to investigate the possibility that one or both children could be a tulku, the reincarnation of a great Buddhist lama.
"What's with all the Tibetan folderol?" you may well ask. Surely this is one of the contributions of screenwriter Rubin, who has traveled throughout the Himalayas and is a student and teacher of meditation. How it all actually fits into the main story that links adorable little present-day Earth children with a future civilization looking for desperately needed genetic assistance is more than a little unclear.
Perhaps Mr. Rubin wanted to write off his latest trip as a business expense. In any case, you may rest assured that you will be seeing mandalas everywhere from space wormholes to fields of futuristic posies in this movie. No explanation is ever really offered for any of it, but since the designs are pleasing to the eye, it easy for the viewer to go with the flow and add one more subplot to the disbelief they must actively suspend while The Last Mimzy plays itself out.
The mandalas do suit the vaguely new-agey message that the film seems to want to deliver. This includes a not-too-heavy-handed environmental sermon about the dangers of pollution and DNA damage. Then there's the more than a little touchy-feely moral of the story, which seems to be that innocence and childhood purity are both the figurative and literal salvation of the world.
Just don't let the FBI or Homeland Security hear about it. Everything is a terrorist plot to them. The wholesome Wilder family comes under scrutiny after a "generator" the children help form from the space objects blacks out much of Seattle. Soon SWAT teams are raiding the place and the family is hauled off to a research facility by a Homeland Security wonk named Broadman (Michael Clarke Duncan) for interrogation and detention.
I know that it hearkens (a little too obviously) back to E.T., but the Homeland Security subplot is by far and away the weakest aspect of the film. Duncan is unconvincing as a former Justice Department bureaucrat now in charge of the security of the Pacific Northwest. And his investigation of the "toys" the Wilder children found also leads to the most awkward and ludicrous product placement I've seen in a movie in a long time. When scientists do a deep scan of the dear little Mimzy doll, they are dumbfounded by the nanotechnology they find. The doll contains a cyborgian nervous system that is beyond their wildest dreams. But in the middle of one circuit board is the glowing logo of Intel.
I hope Intel paid a lot for that placement. "Intel Inside" everything eons into the future? From Mimzy's embroidered lips to God's ear, sayeth the company CEO!
By the time we reach the FBI secret lab, we know that the plot is quickly spiraling away from anything resembling the original story. This is a disappointment, but not really surprising.
For all its wonder, the Padgett story is really a tale of horror—at least for adult readers. The fear and dread of the grownups in the story, from the concerned parents to the visiting kiddie shrink, builds to the concluding scene where a bereft father tries to fathom what has just befallen him. Children view a "through the looking glass" escape from parental and social controls differently, but since a truly tidy resolution is never offered, they too might find the story unsettling, if memorable.
It is therefore understandable that Hollywood went for a more conventional happy ending to their version. Fine, I have no problem with a little hyperbolic wonderment FX whiz-bang to conclude our familial story, followed by a golden scene of flying future children at baby Buddha day camp. But was it really necessary that the filmmakers expunge so much of what made the Padgett story memorable?
Specifically, I was quite offended that the film made absolutely nothing of the Lewis Carroll connection. (The title shift should have warned me that this was coming.) The idea that "Jabberwocky" is actually a coded equation to breaking through to the next dimension is just such a fabulous concept! Along with that, there's the story's suggestion that the original Alice's childish ramblings were actually her attempt to learn and use what earlier time-traveling "toys" had to teach. But, alas, she was just too old to make a complete connection to a new way of thinking, seeing, and being. (A poignant commentary on the downside of "human development.")
The fact is that these ideas from the story could easily have been worked into the movie. However, the film was just too busy with Tibetan imagery and product placement to bother with such a literary homage. Perhaps they believed that movie viewers of 2007 would have no idea who Lewis Carroll is, but if that was the case, why do they depict Emma's babysitter showing Emma the poem and a picture of Alice with a Mimzy twin? Nothing is made of this moment, and the scene quickly dissolves into one of the movie's more comical bits, when Emma shares her ability to atomize her hand—in a manner very reminiscent of the cover of James Frey's pilloried "memoir"—with the appalled sitter, who runs screaming from the house.
Perhaps the Carroll content simply ended on the cutting room floor. Certainly there are several plot elements that simply peter out without adequate resolution in the film. Notably the big bad Homeland Security dudes watch in amazement as our two young heroes create a super generator and mandala wormhole to transmit contraband into another dimension and then apologetically climb into their choppers and fly off. I laughed out loud at the unintentional humor of that one. (As if the whole family wouldn't have been locked up for the rest of their natural lives!)
Having nitpicked my way through another column, you might question my earlier observation about being pleasantly surprised by The Last Mimzy. But keep in mind that I was expecting absolute anathema. As a film made by studio execs and their posse, it is an unexpectedly agreeable entertainment for anyone not too emotionally connected to Kuttner and Moore's classic tale. It's a bit too metaphysical for small children, and a tad too twee for some adults, so I'd guess that the empowered children of The Last Mimzy would most enchant older kids in the 'tween age group.
I wasn't enchanted, but, on the other hand, I didn't think about my torn rotator cuff, the work I had piled up at home, or the war in Iraq once during the ninety minutes of the screening. And that's saying something.
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