★★ out of ★★★★★
Tapping into the hipster zeitgeist, The Banana Splits Movie looked to provide nostalgic psychedelic infused wackiness with ironic ultra-violence layered on top. Instead, it’s a depressing morass filled with unlikable characters.
Directed by Dashka Esterhazy
Tra la la! Tra la la laaaa! Tra la la! Tra la la laaaaaa! (Rinse and repeat)
Children’s television programming in the late ’60s and early ’70s was going through some dramatic changes. On one hand, you had the gentle and sweet programming of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street teaching children life skills and ethics. On the other, you had decidedly zany and hallucinogenic offerings from Sid and Marty Krofft. Their first big production was The Banana Splits, featuring the O.G. furries: Drooper the Lion, Snorky the Elephant, Bingo the monkey, and Fleagle the dog. Wild slapstick shenanigans would ensue, replete with the obligatory air guitar and food fight antics. Later Krofft offerings would include H.R. Puff n’ Stuff, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters and Land of the Lost. These guys were psychedelic G-rated tastemakers of the era. For this film, though, a warning, this movie is NOT FOR KIDS.
Unlike its more esteemed PBS brethren The Banana Splits did not offer up any meaningful social foundation for kids, but it was oddly entertaining. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing someone dressed up like a monkey with glasses take whack at a stuffed elephant with a giant hammer? BONK! Good times! Back in the day, this was zero nutrition, high caffeine TV offerings for kids of the Woodstock era. Cool, man.
Some forty plus years after it went off the air, producers Scott Thomas and Jed Elinoff decided that there is enough creepiness to these mascot-like characters that they could make an ironic horror film based upon a beloved if somewhat forgotten property. And they came up with something that feels like a mash-up of Willie Wonka, the Terminator, and Saw. This is a graphically brutal movie.
Ten-year-old Harley [Finlay Wojtak-Hissong] is an eccentric little boy who is obsessed with The Banana Splits, and he’s probably too old to be liking this kiddie show, and everybody knows it. He doesn’t really have friends, and today is his birthday. Harley’s mom, Beth [Dani Kind] tries her best to be supportive of her son and invites over Zoe, [Maria Nash, perhaps the best character in the movie] a school acquaintance who gets drafted into the birthday party. Zoe rightly thinks Harley is weird and is reluctant to go, but she has no choice but to attend. Beth declares, much to Harley’s delight that for his birthday, they have tickets to go see the Banana Splits live in the studio audience. What could possibly go wrong?
The whole family, including morose Austin [Romeo Carere, Pywacket] and the boorish stepfather Mitch [Steve Lund] also get roped into this engagement. When they arrive at the queuing line, Harley is amped up and ready to go, while everyone else tries to hide their embarrassment for being there. There are a number of other very enthusiastic attendees, including a social media influencing couple, and a Father/Daughter combo looking to get into showbiz. Your redshirts have been introduced.
Backstage, before the show opens, the Banana Splits are revealed to be animatronic. They are in the process of getting an upgrade from the mad-scientist like tinkerer of the show. The upgrade, however, has a viral flaw: “The Show Must Go On!” is the new operating initiative. Drooper the Lion seems to be having some degradation on his old programming and he gets the reboot first. The show does indeed go on, much to the rapture of the kiddies.
Meanwhile, backstage, the show gets canceled by the newly promoted director of operations at the production studio, with much bravado and proverbial mustache-twirling. When the show ends, all of the characters that we’ve met get a backstage invite, a golden ticket, to meet the Splits in person. Unfortunately, the Splits now have been notified that the show has been canceled and their new programming has fueled them with blood lust. They manage to play the part of stoic automatons until the backstage party splinters into several different groups, allowing the furries to track down and gruesomely eliminate anyone they find.
The survivors are idiots. They needlessly scatter, in pursuit of selfish desires. Once things go bad, they scatter again, floundering around for help, and there seem to be so many bad and simple decisions that could have avoided unnecessary deaths. One character gets run down by a golf-cart that could have been dodged so easily… just hop onto the loading dock, easy peasy! I hate horror movies where the characters get dumbed down like this. And then the monsters get dumbed down once the core survivors create an escape plan. Oh, so frustrating!
On paper, this may sound rather entertaining, but it is all a rather depressing presentation. Harley is too weird a kid to emotionally connect with. Beth feels desperate. Mitch is overplayed as a jerk. Austin is the spineless victim. The climactic ending felt formulaic and telegraphed. You could see every punch coming. Even the Banana Splits live show is depressing, despite all the happy music and bouncing around, seeing the show being televised in an oversized studio shell makes it feel very hollow, and didn’t have any of the original Krofft zaniness to it. Perhaps that was by the director’s choice, but it sure didn’t make this enjoyable to watch.
The entire premise of the Terminator furries didn’t really work for me either. I never laughed. This should have been really funny and ironic if it wanted to hold onto its smug-hipster vibe. Instead, it felt like an R-rated bad sequence from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles at times. There is one kill, with a wooden lollipop, which I would give a standing ovation to for creativity. There are some other very gory kills, but they didn’t move my needle as much.
I wanted to like this, I had high hopes, given the radical departure that this movie took with the original characters. The whole idea seemed completely gonzo and audacious and it made me smile when I first caught wind of this film. I remember being entranced by the Banana Splits when I was a young child, watching it on KTVU 2 in San Francisco. It was such a strange TV show. The concept for this film was a daring move, it just fell flat for me. The risk gives the movie a second star, but I suspect, if you were not one who grew up with the Banana Splits, it will mean even less to you. Remember the movie Death to Smoochy, with Robin Williams and Edward Norton? Do you remember how disappointing that was? There may well be a furry curse in Hollywood.
The Banana Splits Movie is rated R, for gore and viscera, and some language. It is currently available for rent on Amazon Prime.