Little Box of Horrors: The Banana Splits Movie.
I was confused to see a Banana Splits movie being made in 2019. After seeing it, I’m still confused.
Apparently the theme this weekend is needless movies. Nate panned Rambo: Last Blood as an utterly unnecessary and vulgar addition to the Rambo franchise. The Banana Splits Movie isn’t that bad. It is clichéd all to hell, but it is competently executed. It’s OK across the board. It’s just not good. Certainly not good enough to justify blowing the cobwebs off of a 50 year old gag property and dragging it into 2019.
Director Danishka Esterhazy reshapes the costumed kids show into a bloody horror flick, an ersatz Five Nights at Freddy’s. While this opens up the property to some social commentary, it is mostly wasted by a script that can’t seem to decide which door it wants to walk through at any given juncture.
The Banana Splits Movie (2019).
Inexplicably, the 60’s kid show The Banana Splits has remained a cultural icon for generations. A little boy named Harley loves the Splits, immersing himself in their zany antics. For his birthday, his struggling mother (Dani Kind) strong-arms his stoner teen brother, disengaged step father, and a reluctant classmate named Zoe (Maria Nash) into going to a live taping of the show. Unfortunately, the episode they attend is scheduled to be the last ever, as a new executive producer axes the show. The animatronic stars of the show and their unstable creator dislike the news, and decide to axe the executive instead…and everyone else trapped in the studio.
Some elements of The Banana Splits Movie deserve praise. First and foremost, the practical effects are quite good in places. The first victim gets dispatched in a “hide the kill” manner, which made me leery of this robotic slasher. I wondered to myself why John Carpenter could make awesome kill scenes on a peanuts budget but modern horror rarely gets close. Well, the first on-screen kill popped right up and delivered. You could see where all of the editing cuts were made, but it featured an interesting set-up, solid acting from the victim, delightful prosthetic work to really highlight the body horror, and a gruesome execution. Several other kills were likewise fun to watch, and the effects added a lot more than they took away.
The acting in the piece is solid. I liked Dani Kind in the lead. Nearly every character is a horror movie cliché, but she doesn’t camp it up and does a good job as the “Linda Hamilton-esque badass mother.” Romeo Carere as the older brother and Naledi Majola as the studio assistant he falls for have a cute dynamic and I grew to like both characters. The writing for other characters made it virtually impossible to be relatable, but few of the players chewed the scenery or phoned it in.
Why Are We Doing This?
My biggest problem with the film was a lack of motivation for the piece. On the cosmic level, why does this film need to exist in 2019? There was a moment to riff on Hana-Barbera kitsch, exploited well by Adult Swim in stuff like Sealab 2021, Space Ghost Coast to Coast, and Harvey Birdman. That wave passed more than a decade ago. The Five Night at Freddy’s craze came and went in an eye-blink about four years ago. Nothing feels particularly topical or relevant about dragging the Banana Splits out of mothballs for this mostly by-the-book horror flick.
On a nuts and bolts level, the film doesn’t seem to have a coherent vision. The scriptwriters (who brought us another LBoH entry, Jetsons & WWE Robo-Wrestlemania) don’t seem to be able to nail down what angle they want to attack from. At first, we get the robots malfunctioning because of a software glitch in one of the bots, similar to this year’s reboot of Child’s Play. Only later, when the staff finds out they are being canned, the inventor of the animatronics makes it sound like he programmed them purposefully to go off if they got axed. The promo for the film makes it sound like there are people in the suits and they are PTSD’ing after decades in a costume and suddenly getting fired. Which one is it? Pick one, and actually have a coherent story that springboards off that premise. This lack of direction leads to all sorts of inconsistency.
The introduction to the characters feels a bit like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: we see nasty, stereotypical people and reasonably expect to see them punished/murdered in appropriate ways. The thin characters seem like obvious swipes at social snark – the Instagram couple who are gate-keeping mega-stans for the series; the overbearing father who is desperate to get his daughter into showbiz and makes the poor kid do horrible stuff; the hot-shit TV exec who wants to make the studio edgy and cool. All of that stuff could be fodder for something to say. It never feels like the script even realizes what it’s talking about, and the kills never add up to payoff. This should be an easy lift; this film totally whiffs at the pitch.
All the way up and down the line, we see no rhyme or reason to justify having such unsubtle characters. There’s a sequence where two people are forced to run a degrading gauntlet for a prize (their lives). Either the talent scout pair or the Instagram pair would have been ideal for that. Instead, we get two victims with no connection (one of them is the totally decent producer who didn’t deserve anything bad to happen to her – so much for a morality play!) The Instagram pair die in a random manner, just after they’d had one redeeming scene together. It doesn’t at all highlight their flaws or have any connection to anything. Hell, we have the only human member of the cast constantly swigging from a scotch bottle while berating the robots. He dies by having an object rammed down his throat. Nope, not a scotch bottle, cause that would make sense. It’s a lollipop. For god knows what reason.
But, Seriously, Why?
The Banana Splits Movie isn’t bad, per se. I didn’t hate it. While it lacks a coherent vision, the composite parts aren’t unwatchable. They just never add up to anything. Unfortunately, we don’t watch Little Box of Horror Movies for “meh, it was alright.” I don’t think anybody watches movies for that. A film needs to demonstrate that somebody had a cool idea or cared enough about the concept to need to make the film. Dare to communicate a vision. Even if you botch it, at least you get some credit for throwing it out there. This movie…I don’t see it.
I desperately wanted the movie to demonstrate that somebody, hell anybody, was in on the joke. There are just so many clichéd and campy horror tropes staggering their way in front of the cameras. I kept feeling like “…and here’s where we cut to a corporate sales pitch, where some unimaginative cog is trying to get a studio to bite at the concept of The Banana Splits, plus murder.” I guess that meeting must have actually happened.