Covered in this installment:
- The Flintstones
The premise is recycled from The Honeymooners, the jokes from various other sitcoms and Borscht Belt routines, the animation in later episodes from the animation in previous episodes. The Flintstones TV show is, despite its unique setting, has never been anything new. So why is a movie that serves as a copy of a copy so fascinating to watch?
The 1994 Flintstones movie opens with a joke nobody has ever found funny:
After that, we get a recreation of the cartoon’s introduction, with Fred sliding down a dinosaur’s tail as he leaves work and heads home to Wilma and Pebbles. This is the city he drives through:
In the first five minutes, we’ve been given a perfect encapsulation of the primary tension of The Flintstones: The writing is beyond lazy and the props look perfect. Little details from the show, down to sign fonts, have been painstakingly translated into the real world. There aren’t a lot of right angles in Bedrock, and its buildings look as you’d expect a bunch of chiseled slabs to look. Ironically for a show built on recycling old materials, everything in The Flintstones has been made from scratch. Every time a character sits down at a table, you notice salt and pepper shakers meant to look like they’ve been carved out of rock, and that the plates are covered in sculpted food the studio couldn’t have possibly hoped to be able to reuse later. The sheer amount of work on display is impressive.
Sometimes, too much work has been put in. The titular family’s garbage disposal, for example, is a fat green pig sitting in its own filth, with spit and vomit running down its chin. Fred cleans it out by sticking his arm down the pig’s throat.
It takes two second to write “the garbage disposal is a pig,” but a team then had to build a working pig puppet, and they went ahead and made it so realistic it’s foul. Dino, a character with significantly more screen time than puke pig, is made similarly to how the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, released one year earlier, were constructed. He’s a combination of physical models, which we mostly see in close-up, and CGI, which pops up every time he has to run around and move all cartoony.
Every building and newspaper looks perfect, but if a prop had eyes, the crew couldn’t help but create a terror. Dino has the same problem Scooby had in the Scooby-Doo movies from a few years later in that when he’s totally CGI, he seems to phase between planes of reality. He doesn’t have any weight. When he jumps in a conga line or knocks Fred off his feet, the actors move around unnaturally and an unnervingly wrinkled purple alien starts rolling around. When the camera does zoom in and the physical models are used, Dino looks like those popular Internet images where somebody draws “realistic” versions of Homer Simpson or Pikachu.
This is all dressing for a story that swings surprisingly dark surprisingly quickly. Kyle MacLachlan plays a soulless businessman who wants to modernize Fred and Barney’s workplace and create a mass of cheaply made, affordable housing in what is basically a real estate scam. He introduces an initiative to quickly promote lower level employees to management positions and Fred shoots up the corporate ladder, unaware he’s being set up as a patsy to take the fall when MacLachlan’s character grabs all the money for himself and splits town.
Fred’s a doofus, but he’s a kind doofus, saying he wants to use his new power to get the workers full benefits and more vacation time. He quickly gets carried away with his own money and forgets about his initial ideals, though, making The Flintstones a more explicit parable about greed and the dangers of capitalism than many adult dramas.
If that sounds out of place, it is, and the movie tries to course-correct back to the land of kid movies frequently. As the main plot unfolds, Barney and Betty are dealing with the adoption of their new son Bamm-Bamm. A bizarre yet typical sequence sees Wilma and Betty out shopping when Bamm-Bamm, still not adjusted to his new life, goes wild and smashes a bunch of merchandise. This is all played for laughs until Betty finds out her bank account is empty and she can’t pay the store for the broken goods, at which point she cries to Wilma that money is tight and adoption is a difficult process. She bares her soul for all of three minutes, and then a pterodactyl flies by overhead and unleashes a massive bath of poop on a car.
That tonal dissonance has to be chalked up to the movie’s scripting process. Three writers are credited. The first draft was written by Steven de Souza, master of 80s action, who has since said his initial idea was a cross between the old TV show and The Grapes of Wrath (if this appeals to you like it appeals to me, make sure to check out DC’s recent Flintstonesseries). The draft was then rewritten by 35 different people. In scenes like the one I just described, you can see the seams where different writers’ ideas were stitched together. “It would be funny if Bamm-Bamm busted up some stuff!” somebody says. “But that’s kind of bad because that stuff costs money!” another person replies. “Do you realize how sad that is? This is a kid’s movie! Cover a car in shit!” a third jumps in. If the producers wanted The Flintstones to have a coherent tone, a 36th person should have been brought in to smooth everything out.
And so here I am saying the same thing about Flintstones I did about Hey There! It’s Yogi Bear!: it’s (mostly) a joy to watch this movie for the way it translates the show’s modernist aesthetic to the big screen, but you’re going to have to ignore a lot of weird stuff in the process. Maybe the defining image of The Flintstones is this shot of an ATM: It’s a beautifully constructed prop that gets less than a minute on camera, and you can only really marvel at it if you forget it’s being used for some loose social commentary about greed.
Author: Alex Rudolph
Alex is from the Bay Area and has lived in Philadelphia for three years, though he is trying to find a way to transport into the Squand commercial that always played early in the morning on Nickelodeon (with a summer place in the Crossfire ad). If you want to talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow, he will sit here and talk about Dan Clowes comics and Merzbow all dang day. He is also the founder of the popular websites AV Club, The New York Times, Harpo Productions and Bitcoin. Follow him on Instagram.