Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Project DCOM #7: CAN OF WORMS


The best thing about Can of Worms, Disney Channel's April 1999 original movie, is its collection of alien creatures. Provided by the Jim Henson company, these creatures are the kinds of aliens-on-a-budget creativity that could only come with resourceful puppetry (and some discount CGI, by the looks of it). My favorite was a glop of green goo that warps in through a wormhole that looks like a floating pipe (Mario style) and gets slime all over a poor boy's desk while gobbling up everything in sight. He has big blinking eyes set in a scrunched-up glob of a mouth that almost - but not quite - looks like the shape of the fingers so clearly sitting behind, operating its face. I suppose it's inevitable that the slimy guy is a lawyer. Not even kids films are free of that career's stereotypes.

Why is an extraterrestrial lawyer warping into a kid's bedroom? For that matter, what brings a galactic caseworker that looks like talking dog (with the voice of Malcolm McDowell, no less) and a loudmouth alien promotional agent (he's all leg and mouth, but for the stalks his eyes sit on) after the kid as well? It's all about the opening scene that finds Michael Pillsbury (Michael Shulman), a creative boy distraught from typical young teen problems, commandeering the family satellite dish to fire off a message into outer space. He's an alien trapped in a hostile environment, he furiously types, hitting send at the same moment the dish is struck by lightening that zaps its signal out across the universe. Thus, the creatures who think they’re saving him. Oops.

His imagined isolation brings real fantastical consequences as he's taken at his word by a host of beings who want to either help or exploit him, sometimes both. This fun concept, scripted by Kathy Mackel from her book of the same name, is mostly wasted, though. The intriguing opening is followed by a flashback to two weeks before, allowing us to see what made the boy so upset. It turns out to be not all that interesting, a collection of typical plot beats. There's his crush on a cheerleader (Erika Christensen, who would appear the next year in Steven Soderbergh’s ensemble drama Traffic), hurts from a bully (Marcus Turner), and conscription into playing football enforced by his father (Garrett M. Brown). This is all rather lamely presented, his feelings of being an outlier forcefully underlined by scenes of the kid telling his own original sci-fi story to an adoring younger neighbor (Andrew Ducote). That his story simply happens to be the last days of Krypton by another name goes curiously unnoticed by the geek next door.

The movie's various elements don't sit well together. All of this human-scale dramedy threatens to turn into a dull teen message movie, but occasionally sparks to life with a funny line or two. I particularly liked the kid's mother (Lee Garlington) admonishing his pesty little sister (Brighton Hertford), saying "Jill! What did we say about empathy?" But by the time the aliens, most welcome though they are, finally show up to besiege and bother our lead character, it feels almost too much for the gentle and small dramas playing out simple and rote in an every-day setting. It's a good concept that plays out a little less satisfyingly than you might think, unlike director Paul Schneider’s previous DCOM, You Lucky Dog, which was a bad concept that plays out a little better than you might think. In neither case is that as good or bad as it might sound.

Can of Worms is most entertaining in two brief bursts, once on purpose, and one an accident of its time. The latter comes near the beginning in a prime bit of late-late-20th century computer silliness. The lead is picked on in his computer class in an early representation of what we'd now call cyberbullying, I suppose. Here, he and bully tease each other with elaborately programmed tame jabs that pop up on all the screens in the computer lab at once. This is accomplished with floppy disks, precocious networking skills, and a dose of magical thinking. The intentional burst of entertainment comes in the last-minute conflict that finds some of the Earth kids warped into a creepily tactile otherworldly zoo. It's surprising how genuinely off-putting it manages to be through nothing more than a strange use of silence and fog machines. That most of the movie is not so entertaining, accidentally or otherwise, is just too bad.


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