Saturday, April 18, 2009

This Week's Classic Kids' Movie

Oh, where to start?

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) is the only feature film written by the famed children’s author Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Seuss Geisel). It was rather a bomb at the box office, so I guess that’s why Geisel didn’t pursue a film career. (According to Wikipedia, Geisel regarded the finished film as a "debaculous fiasco.") It’s too bad, because the writing (both songs and dialog) is pretty brilliant, which should be no surprise considering the lyrical nature of Dr. Seuss books.

Besides the music, there are so many weird things to love about The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. As you may have gathered, it is a musical (the score was nominated for an Oscar), which unfolds in a live action, surrealist setting, with animated visuals integrated fairly seamlessly. It’s produced by the great filmmaker Stanley Kramer (Judgment at Nuremberg , On the Beach, The Defiant Ones, to name a few), which is just weird. There is plenty of vibrant, eye-candy whimsy, such as roller-skating, twin men who share a long, gray beard, and a fantastic scene where our hero Bart climbs a very, very high Seuss-ian ladder to nowhere (I kept thinking, “Oh! The places we will go!”). The color is magnificent (blazing Technicolor!), and the sets ... well, suffice to say, The 5,000 Fingers... visuals are not far from what a minimalist Wizard of Oz might look like. They’re stunning.

“If kids had their way, there’d hardly
be any parents born at all!”

Like the Wizard of Oz, this is all merely a dream, but it’s made quite clear from the beginning (I’m not spoiling anything here). Little Bart is an unwilling piano student who lives in fear of the didactic and dictatorial piano teacher Dr. Terwilliker (played deliciously by Hans Conried), and most of the film depicts Bart’s nightmare, caught in a web of Terwilliker evil.

I can see why hipsters might put The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T on their favorite film lists. It’s a slightly more uneven, underdog version of Willie Wonka & The Chocolate Factory or Oz, and it is a bit more ... twisted than those films.

Here’s the warning for parents of young kids:

Of course, the idea of being pursued and imprisoned by an evil anything/anyone might bother young ‘uns, and that’s a theme throughout. Once Bart and his accomplice, the father figure/plumber August Zabladowski, are caught by Terwilliker in his compound, they are taken onto an elevator, where a shirtless, black-masked henchman/operator calls out the floors (in song):

“First floor dungeon! Asssorted simple tortures ... molten lead, chopping blocks and hot ... boil-ing .... oooil!

“Second floor dungeon! Jewlery department .... leg chains, ankle chains, neck chains, thumb screws, nooses of the very .... fiiine - est ... rope!

There they are shown how non-piano playing musicians are treated: a drummer is imprisoned inside a huge drum, which Dr. Terwilliker explains is pounded all day and all night, forever. The prisoner's silhouette begs to be released as the visitors come to the cell, and the drummer ceases his torturous task for a moment.

But of course, it’s all played out as a dream, and it ends on a happy note. The references to torture and dungeons are the only caveats in what is now a really offbeat family movie (and maybe I’m going overboard here ... how quickly we forget what a seven- or nine-year old mind might be like when our kid is suddenly a sassy tweener!). I think mom and dad will dig it, and so will most kids. It’s a real treat for the eyes, and the ears. I’m tempted to go out and find the soundtrack now.

And I hate musicals.

(Another note from Wikipedia: "The Simpsons" villain Sideshow Bob takes his last name "Terwilliger" from this film.)

Ok, here are a couple of trailers. The first is one of the memorable musical scenes; I noticed son K singing along by song's end -- you can't help yourself. Evil Dr. T is preparing for his big, 500-boy (5,000 fingers) piano symphony debut.

The second is the dungeon elevator scene, so you can see for yourself if it might be ok for your own kids. But don't let that scene alone deter you! Maybe you could fast forward through it ...

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