Wednesday, December 3, 1997

Flubber

Posted By on Wed, Dec 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM

For the Walt Disney Co., nostalgia is a valuable commodity, and it expertly maintains and regularly recycles its tried-and-true stable of films, television shows and popular cartoon characters.

But instead of just releasing its older films on video, Disney raids its vault for material to rework. It recently did a remake of That Darn Cat! (1965) and a live-action version of 101 Dalmatians (1961). Now comes Flubber, based on The Absent-Minded Professor (1961). Directed by Les Mayfield (Encino Man), Flubber follows Phillip Brainard (Robin Williams), a mild-mannered and distracted chemistry professor, as he concocts the extraordinarily bouncy "flubber" (as in "flying rubber").

Prof. Brainard hopes that this new substance can save the financially strapped Medfield College and get him back in the good graces of its president, Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden), his frustrated and long-suffering fiancee.

Writer-producer John Hughes has updated Bill Walsh's original script to reflect his Home Alone brand of slapstick violence, making sure that the film's bad guys are not just cartoonishly evil, but get sadistically clobbered. Hughes also doesn't trust the inherent humor of the situation, adding a few crude comic flourishes that might embarrass even Jim Carrey.

Utilizing new special effects, this remake spectacularly redoes the original film's two set pieces: an uproarious basketball game where the hapless Medfield players bounce back thanks to enhanced shoes (Air Flubbers?), and Brainard's ride through the clouds in a flubber-powered flying automobile (the original's Model T is replaced by a 1963 Thunderbird).

But the real stars of Flubber are inanimate objects, which manage to have more verve and personality than the actors: the feisty flubber itself -- hyperactive shape-shifting green Jell-O that's weirdly childlike -- which divides into dozens of dancing globs for a show-stopping Busby Berkeley musical number; and Weebo, Brainard's saucy flying computer sidekick, who punctuates a running commentary with pithy movie clips (expertly compiled by film historian and documentarian Chuck Workman).

By putting the emphasis on technology over humans, Flubber finds the absent-minded professor playing second banana to his own cutesy gelatinous creation.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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