An Appropriate Tagline: It’s funny because it’s just like that one cartoon, only it’s not a cartoon!
Occasionally, I am reminded of a time in my life where I would watch just about anything on television as long as it was animated. For no apparent reason, animated shows were considered inherently appropriate for children (these being the days before Seth MacFarlane, Adult Swim, or even Matt Groening), even if the premise and characters were aimed at boring middle-aged people in the 1960s.
Hence, I grew up watching “The Flintstones,” and I enjoyed it. God knows why. Upon reexamination, there are no characters for me to relate to (at the age of 5 or now), no situation or plot that I could call objectively humorous. It’s like a Sunday newspaper comic strip. At best, it’s remembered fondly.
That being said, someone told Steven Spielberg that he’d make exactly one metric shit-ton of money by funding a live-action feature film based on a cartoon with the paper-thin premise of “‘The Honeymooners,’ but, you know, cavemen. It’s funny, I swear.” So, thirty years after the joke stopped being funny, I watched The Flintstones, brought to you by a post-Jurassic Park Universal Studios…and Winston cigarettes.
Make no mistake, this movie is not exactly a crime against humanity. It’s just criminally negligent of what comedy, plot, casting, special effects, and direction are.
A BREIF SYNOPSIS:
So, after an oddly pulp-noir prologue introduction to our villains, we are treated to a shot-for-shot remake of the famous opening titles of “The Flintstones,” but in live-action format. Also, with a whole lot of cheap background jokes (the drive-in theater is playing the “Gorge Lucas” epic “Tar Wars”).
John Goodman is Fred Flintstone.
No, he isn’t playing Fred. Mr. Goodman actually is Fred Flintstone. And he nails it. But the rest of the casting is pretty damn weird. Elizabeth Perkins is actually pretty good as Wilma, but Rick Moranis was a really odd choice to play portly little dunce Barney Rubble. He does very well with the character, including the much lower and the dunderheaded voice/laugh. But because Moranis is so slight a man (especially standing next to the behemoths casted here), Barney becomes a much more pathetic, sad-sack character. Like a prehistoric Louis Tully from Ghostbusters.
Then we come to the jokey, stunt-casted featured players like Elizabeth Taylor (presumably getting paid in solid diamond onion-rings for a reported two days of work) as Wilma’s awful mother, Kyle MacLachlan riding high from “Twin Peaks” as our moustache-twirling villain, and Halle Berry in an early role that was meant for Sharon Stone…the character’s name is Sharon Stone. That’s the comedy we’re dealing with here.
I saved my favorite casting decision for last. Betty Rubble, for decades assumed to be a total “dish” way out of Barney’s league, with her Disney eyes and shapely form, was a fun girl. Maybe slightly ditsy at times, but always more intelligent than her husband (as sitcom law dictates). For that role, they pick Rosie O’Donnell, fresh from A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle. Rosie really nails the famous Betty Rubble laugh. And that’s it. She is so far from what this character is, and I’m not fanboy-nitpicking here. It ruins the entire dynamic of Barney and Betty. Picture Rosie O’Donnell standing next to Rick Moranis. Yep, you’ve just pictured the most unintentionally funny thing about this movie.
Sorry to take up the synopsis with that rant but in all fairness, the “Look who it is!!!” nature of this film renders the cast list as the majority of the plot.
Anyways, the actual plot shouldn’t take too long here. Fred and Wilma have loaned a substantial amount of their savings to the Rubbles so they can adopt a kid. That’s…actually really heartwarming. Until you see said kid. The humor (as written) is that their new son Bamm-Bamm actually looks and behaves like a cartoonish caveman. He’s also superhumanly strong. No explanation given. And we are introduced to this via a montage, which doesn’t seem very necessary, especially so early in the movie. Children and adults alike will accept one instance of this kid grunting, swinging a club, and lifting a car over his head. But we get it hammered into our head multiple times with a pop song over the top. By the way, MACDONALD’S! And also, POORLY RENDERED CGI DINOSAURS!
This generous loan serves as a catalyst for the zany events that follow. Barney, feeling indebted to Fred, switches their aptitude test applications for an executive position at their rock quarry job. Because Barney is evidently really smart and Fred is a complete moron, the obvious happens: Fred is given the executive job, and his first task is to fire his best friend for being dumb as a rock (see, I can do it too). By the way, CHEVROCK! IT’S LIKE CHEVRON, BUT AS A SHITTY PUN!
Unbeknownst to our heroes, Slate and Co. executive Cliff Vandercave (MacLachlan) and his slutty/seemingly dangerous assistant (Berry) are planning to fire the entire quarry staff, replace them with shoddy automated digging and processing machinery, and then embezzle a bunch of money. I’m not quite sure how firing a bunch of poor stiffs and destroying the company are necessary steps to embezzling. It just seems needless and evil. I guess they must be embezzling the leftover equipment budget and staff wages. Anyway, the point of promoting Fred was to pin the entire crime on him as their patsy. I’m…not entirely sure why they would then promote the smartest guy in the quarry (based off their aptitude scores). You’d think that they would want the dumbest guy…which, as it turns out, they got. Also, LAZY PUPPET WOOLY MAMMOTH! THE CHILDREN PLAY IN A “JURASSIC” PARK!
This is so damn stupid.
Anyway, Fred becomes a rich asshole who wears expensive pelts and drives a big fancy new car and stuff. Meanwhile, Barney, Betty, and Bamm-Bamm are on their asses. They’ve sold their house and moved in as Fred’s houseguests while Barney mows through about thirty crappy jobs (that, for some reason, are depicted as WAY more demeaning than shoveling rock in a quarry). We are shown this through yet another mind-numbing montage.
Then Fred is tasked with firing all his old pals in the quarry, which he unwittingly signs the papers for while being told it’s a paid vacation. When everyone finds out, Wilma gets pissed and boots him from the house, after an impressive display of destruction of their new executive lifestyle possessions (it reminded me of Talia Shire breaking dishes in The Godfather, only somehow better acted). Now half the town is calling for his head (never piss off a bunch of Rotarian bowling enthusiasts who work in a quarry in a small mining town). This hunt for Fred is also given a mini-montage. Evidently, this is the only coherent way the plot can be conveyed to us. Heaven forbid we get a scene where these relevant plot points are conveyed through dialogue, right? Then we wouldn’t have time for the fabulous jokes about rocks and stones and caves and dinosaurs. The out-of-work quarry guys (who have quickly deteriorated into homeless nutcases occupying an actual slum in Bedrock) form a mob to literally hang Fred on a public street. Wow. As luck would have it, Barney shows up and gives an impassioned speech. So they decide to hang him, too. Double wow. Oh, I should also mention CNN STANDS FOR CAVE NEWS NETWORK! THAT WEIRD-AS-SHIT BAND THE B-52’S ARE HERE AS “THE BC-52’S” AND THEY’RE SINGING A SONG FROM THE ORIGINAL CARTOON!
Luckily, Wilma shows up with Fred’s “dicta-bird,” voiced by Harvey Corman and played physically by a crusty old animatronic from the Disney Tiki-Room. I mean, this thing is bad. Like, old Chuck E. Cheese animatronics bad. Anyway, the “recordings” that the bird “recorded” (because he’s an office Dictaphone, you see) prove that Fred is a patsy for Cliff. By the way, HARVEY CORMAN USED TO DO THE VOICE OF THE GREAT GAZOO! YAY CAMEO!
Naturally, Cliff kidnaps Bamm-Bamm and Pebbles and threatens to crush them in the mining equipment unless he gets the evidence back. This is not The Flintstones, for fuck’s sake. This is just disturbing. This is like a bizarro-world prehistoric version of “The Wire.”
So, Bob McKenzie saves the kids while Walter Sobchak punches Paul Atreides and sabotages the equipment, inadvertently inventing concrete and encasing the villain in it for a truly grisly kid-movie death. So, all’s well that ends well. Fred and Barney go back to their old jobs, their buddies get re-hired, and the producers hold out for a sequel directed by Oliver Stone.
Stone. Did-did you read that one? STONE.
Okay, well…The Flintsones isn’t a painful experience to watch. It’s mostly embarrassing. For everyone. Did you know that this was Elizabeth Taylor’s last feature film role? Embarrassing.
Matter of fact, let’s start with the bizarre casting in this movie. I know I already touched on this earlier, but let’s approach this from a positive standpoint. John Goodman was a triumphant casting success. And being that this film was during the height of his “Roseanne” days, it stood to reason that him playing Fred was mutually beneficial for everyone involved (the project found a guy that their target audience recognized and loved, and Goodman got to be a leading man in a feature film, play an iconic character, and get a big payday). So, I drink to that casting.
Perkins as Wilma seems logically sound. This is allegedly a comedy, and she’s a very gifted straight-woman. Keep in mind that she was best known for playing the yuppie love interest for Tom Hanks in Big. So, everyone involved knew this: she’s a redhead, she has the voice down perfectly, she’s age-appropriate to be Goodman’s wife while still looking stunning in a loincloth dress, and she’s already played a very good grounding foil to a larger-than-life protagonist.
But the dual-snicker that is Moranis and O’Donnell warrants some explanation. Sure, Rosie O’Donnell was suddenly an A-List celebrity after the one-two combo of A League of Their Own and Sleepless in Seattle. It seemed at the time that she was appearing everywhere, including the buddy-cop sequel Another Stakeout for no apparent reason. But was her star rising so high as to justify another case of stunt casting a la Schwarzenegger in Batman & Robin? And just as in that case, the role was molded to better fit her. Moranis, on the other hand, was given the material with the mandate, “You’re shorter than John, so all you need is the voice now.” I’ll say that both actors pulled it off and did serviceable work. Only because the whole exercise was already rendered pointless by being an elaborate remake of a crap cartoon.
Moving on to the production itself, this movie looks…strange. In an effort to translate the aesthetic of a cartoon to the big screen, director Brian Levant and cinematographer Dean Cundey decided this film had to be bright, colorful, and broad. What do I mean by broad? I mean as much realism as possible was sucked out of the frame.
This is a complete reverse of Manoj Shyamalan’s live-action adaptation, The Last Airbender. Shyamalan gave his adaptation an aesthetic of its own, substituting cel-shaded colors for earth tones and lens filters. The element-bending went from looking like martial-arts powers to an odd, tribal summoning dance. He tried making the unreal…real. It didn’t work out.
Conversely, Levant and Cundey embraced the cartoony nature of “The Flintstones.” This, while arguably preferable to taking all the fanciful soul out of a children’s show, became grating to watch. I understand that this is a live-action version of a cartoon. I didn’t need a reminder every two seconds. I didn’t need Fred’s famous leopard-skin loincloth and blue necktie to look like a Halloween costume. I would have preferred it having a more real leopard print to it. I would have preferred a live-action movie that had more live action in it. If anything, that would have at least justified filming it instead of animating a “Flintstones” movie.
Beyond the overly-cartoony sensibility of this film, the effects and props are…terrible. Everything looks plastic and weightless, or computer-generated. Dino and the other dinosaurs on display don’t look computer-rendered. They look like stop-motion. I would forgive this if the executive producer and the cinematographer of this film had not just made all the money in the known world on a movie filled with CGI/puppet dinosaurs.
And then there’s the script. In my research, I discovered something truly gob-smacking about The Flintstones. This very safe, family-friendly, unambitious 91-minute flick necessitated thirty-five screenwriters over the course of its nine years of development and production. The WGA only gave screen credit to three of these fellows, but the Golden Raspberry Awards did name the other 32 people when giving the award for Worst Screenplay.
I can’t, for the life of me, imagine why a rehash of a 60’s cartoon sitcom would have needed that many writers (or more accurately, that many re-writes). Examining the script, I get the feeling that this is the basic plot structure for any and all “Flintstones” episodes, but lengthened with hammy cameos, updated pop-culture references, and pratfalls. In any old episode of the show, Fred Flintstone sets out to accomplish something, and in pursuing his goal he either puts his family and friends second or he behaves boorishly. Right on cue, his ambition or goal (accomplished or not) snowballs and threatens to ruin his home life/friendship/tournament/vacation/etc. So, in perfectly cartoony style, he admits how much of a dick or dunce he was and enlists Wilma, Barney, Betty, and maybe a guest character to help him out of his jam. Now that I type this out, it begins to sound like every single sitcom plot from the last sixty years. So why would that be so difficult to replicate and stretch to an hour and a half?
Mixed Bag Casting – While the important assignment of casting a proper Fred and Wilma worked out, the rest of the cast seems needlessly extravagant (Elizabeth Taylor? Really?) or shameful typecasting and stunt-casting. Despite all this, the cast actually did okay…
A Cartoony Live-Action Adaptation of a Cartoon – We see through shoddy effects and props, bright and broad-looking photography, and a needlessly slavish attention to detail that this movie is little more than an overly indulgent and ultimately worthless endeavor. After all, why make a cartoon out of this? We have the cartoon already!
Script-o-matic 3000 – As illustrated by the synopsis and the examination, a screenplay for a “Flintstones” movie shouldn’t be that difficult. But this one spends endless time on referencing the old show, shout-outs to corporate sponsors and pop-culture stuff in the form of bad puns, and a wild couple of turns into strange and terrifying territory. It’s easy to see how this Franken-script was the product of a squadron-sized group of frustrated individuals who just wanted pilot season to begin. But at the same time, how does a professional writer adapt a one-joke cartoon into a movie without it being a one-joke movie?
Cause of Death: A Cartoony Live-Action Adaptation of a Cartoon
It’s really easy to pick on the screenplay for The Flintstones. But I ask you, in a completely sincere defense of the 35 people responsible, could you do better?
Let’s take off all nostalgia goggles and realize something: “The Flintstones” is a great premise, and a terrible ongoing plot. If you were offered the chance to watch an episode, I dare say that you wouldn’t find it that bad. But if you were subjected to watch the entire run of the show in great haste (say, at the rate we now devour television through streaming entire seasons), you would condemn this kitschy little show for being one-note, one joke, and not funny. So, getting back to the topic, how can anyone be told, “See that show? Do exactly that. Write a movie that is this show, only live-action and about 90 minutes,” and not just…follow the formula?
Not only that, but as I began this Autopsy remember that the main issue I cited with “The Flintstones” is that it’s a children’s show depicting middle-aged men and women with career and domestic problems. So when the film released and critics chortled at the very idea of a children’s film about office politics, embezzlement, domestic disputes, lynch mobs, homelessness, and a song from the B-52’s, is that really the fault of this film’s script? Or is it possibly the shitty cartoon?
As for the casting, it seems oddly appropriate that a family movie from the 1990s (based on a show from the 1960s) would stuff its cast with flavor-of-the-month stars and recognizable character actors. We all watched Lost in Space and Wild Wild West…well, I did. We also all watched better versions of this scenario, like Mission: Impossible, The Addams Family, and The Fugitive. It’s just the way things work. And we can at least be proud of the studio system for showing remarkable restraint and casting Goodman as Fred, instead of their other (supposedly very briefly) mooted choices: Jim Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and John Candy. Ugh. It’s like SNL and SCTV threw up on me.
But the production itself…that’s wherein this big, petrified dinosaur turd stems. For a movie produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Universal Studios (just after the two collaborated on one of the biggest movies of the decade) this looks so incredibly cheap. And the effects are amateur. And it’s shot like a three-camera sitcom. And the entire aesthetic reminds me of live-action Saturday morning kids’ shows with no budget.
We knew this wouldn’t be a well-written film. We knew that the acting would be serviceable at best. Those are just the consequences of making a “Flintstones” movie, live-action or otherwise. But why does this $45 million movie look this way?
Keep in mind that Brian Levant is a completely capable film director, as long as we’re talking about that odd subgenre of theatrically-released live-action family comedies featuring 1980’s comedians. You know, the ones that looked like TV movies, and still made like $100 million? Like Beethoven, Jingle All The Way, The Santa Clause, etc. Strange that this subgenre no longer exists. But, hey…post-9/11 world, right?
So you can’t pin this on Levant. Really, he’s the perfect choice for the project and he made a competent film, despite it being far-and-wide his most expensive, ambitious, technically-oriented movie. The only crime I can charge him with might be the abundance of montages. It smells like Levant. All of those movies require at least one zany montage of our lead characters coping with a change of some kind, right?
There’s Dean Cundey, the wayward cinematographer. But one look at his body of work, and I have no basis for blaming him. Look at what movies he’s shot: Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, Back to the Future (yes, the whole trilogy), Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Hook, Jurassic Park, Apollo 13…this man knows his shit, and he’s been the trusted DP for four of the most influential filmmakers of the last half-century.
I want to take a moment and quote the biography of Mr. Cundey’s IMDb page: “Dean Cundey reigns supreme as one of the best, most prolific, and talented cinematographers to ever grace celluloid with his often striking and accomplished photography.” As pretentious, egotistical, redundant, and obviously self-written as that sentence is, I’m not prepared refute any of it (except maybe “reigns supreme,” which curiously enough is an actual partial line of dialogue from The Flintstones!).
Okay, so why the shitty-looking movie, Mr. Gracing Celluloid? Were you just not applying yourself? Was the material not challenging enough for your striking and accomplished skills? Aha, it looks like Mr. Cundey has spent the last 15 years or so shooting less-than-iconic family comedies (Garfield, Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and…gulp…Jack and Jill) and the occasional TV movie. Why the very thorough fall from grace? Who knows. But The Flintstones happened long before this man was done “reigning supreme.” And to his credit, he succeeded in capturing a completely cartoon world in live action. It was an annoying choice, but he performed it with all the mastery and poise that I would expect from the guy who shot about 57% of my childhood and adolescence.
We also have producers, folks. Plenty of blame can be hefted on Mr. Spielberg himself. A fantastic director who is responsible for my fear of sharks, aliens, and dinosaurs, and my love of movies…is in hindsight, kind of a bad producer.
Calm…the fuck…down. Hear me out. Spielberg is like, Oprah-rich. Being that stinking wealthy, and being Hollywood royalty, he is approached very often to finance and shepherd movie and television projects. And his problem is that he is game for just about anything.
“Terra Nova,” Transformers (yes, all four), “Smash,” Casper…and The Flintstones, among others. Sure, every once in a while he picks a winner—or rather, directs one himself–but it’s about 50/50. What does that say, exactly? He’s not very discerning about what he puts his name on. Unless he’s directing the project as well, Stevie will give it his endorsement and probably a hefty check without so much as reading the script (or seeing the movie or show upon completion, it seems).
But since he’s an Executive Producer on The Flintstones and most of the others, I give him a bit of leeway. After all, he’s not in charge. He’s not an operational fixture on these projects. Who was an actual producer?
Bruce Cohen, known mostly for Oscar-worthy dramas like American Beauty and The Silver Linings Playbook. Well, we all get started somewhere (I’m writing on the INTERNET!). Kathleen Kennedy and Gerald Molen, two of Spielberg and Lucas’ long-time collaborators. Guess how they got roped into this?
David Kirschner. This seems pretty fishy. His producer credits include all five Child’s Play movies, The Pagemaster, Hocus Pocus, The latest incarnations of Curious George, and Titan A.E. Wow, this is probably where the majority of the blame lies.
You know what? This is too hard. I can’t lay the blame for this movie being a crappy comedy on one cut-rate producer! That’s a scripting issue. I can’t solely blame the bad aesthetics on him either, that’s a creative issue.
Sweeping declaration time: I find anyone who worked on the 1994 film The Flintstones to be guilty of Conspiracy to Commit Bad Comedy. With Spielberg’s lawyers, I’m sure everyone will beat the R.I.C.O. charges, though.
John Goodman gets a pardon, because that man is a national effing treasure.