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`Flubber’ a metaphor of what’s wrong with ‘90s Disney

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Watching the new Disney comedy "Flubber" was a dispiriting experience for me.

Well, "new" is a relative term, of course. As you are probably aware, "Flubber" is actually a remake of the black-and-white 1961 special-effects farce "The Absent Minded Professor."I'm a fan of the original film, having enjoyed it in my youth. But it also holds up pretty well today.

Yet, as I watched "Flubber" play out on the big screen last week, it became a metaphor of what's wrong with the movie industry in general and the Disney studio in particular.

The movie's press kit says the story was updated "for today's highly sophisticated film audiences." But it's really just another cold, calculated means of making money with a familiar name product and a zillion merchandising spinoffs.

To illustrate what I mean, let's compare the two movies, remembering that they are separated by some 36 years:

- "The Absent Minded Professor" really is about Prof. Ned Brainard (Fred MacMurray) and the effect that his invention - a gooey energy source which he dubs "flying rubber," or "flubber" - has on his life.

Although much of the film's humor relies on wild flubber-propelled special effects, such as a flying Model T and a basketball team that leaps to ridiculous heights, the core of the movie is Brainard himself. The filmmakers never waver in allowing the audience to identify with MacMurray's amusing portrayal of an everyman who wants to use his invention for good but who must battle villains bent on stealing it for their own selfish profitmaking purposes.

- "Flubber," on the other hand, is more about the title substance. In this film, flubber isn't just flying rubber - it takes on an anthropomorphic life force, complete with a mischievious personality. The substance also utters a sort of cooing noise, as if it's a gooey green pigeon.

Oddly, though it is a cavorting creature, flubber can also be rolled into a bouncing ball, or liquefied, or have small portions of it removed. Yet, it retains its lifelike form.

And to demonstrate its ability to romp about like one of the creatures in "Gremlins" (and to come up with a music video that can be marketed separately), the goo splits into several "flubbers" that shimmy in an elaborate Busby Berkeley-style dance number.

If that's not enough, this film's Professor Phillip Brainard (Robin Williams) is repeatedly overwhelmed by a new character, a flying robot sidekick called WEEBO. In the original film, Brainard played off of his housekeeper and pet dog. But here, he plays straight man to the robot (voiced by Jodi Benson, who also does the voice of "The Little Mermaid").

As if the film isn't mechanical enough, it plays up all the animated objects as the film's real stars. This is especially true during a sentimental subplot that has WEEBO so in love with the professor that she tries to sabotage his marriage plans.

- In the original film, Brainard flew a dilapidated Model T.

- In the new film, it's a red, classic '63 T-Bird.

- In the original film, the humor is innocent and light-hearted.

- In the new film, it's rather mean-spirited and includes the usual "modern" vulgar gags, as when Brainard mistakenly walks into the wrong college room and finds two nude models sitting in front of an art class, or when a villain swallows the flubber and it exits as an explosive bowel movement.

Worse, many of the gags are built around "Home Alone"-style pain . . . except that, instead of paint buckets or bricks, two bad guys are bonked in the head with a golf ball and a bowling ball! Yikes!

Why graft on the "Home Alone" formula? Because "Flubber's" co-writer and co-producer is John Hughes.

Back in the early '80s, Hughes made interesting - if increasingly vulgar - teenage comedies ("Sixteen Candles," "The Breakfast Club," "Weird Science"), which gave way in the early '90s to younger characters, after the incredible success of "Home Alone." ("Home Alone 3" is due Dec. 12, by the way.)

And a few years ago, Hughes linked up with Disney, apparently to make "Home Alone"-style remakes of Disney classics. First came his live-action remake of "101 Dalmatians," which climaxed with the "Home Alone" formula. Now comes "Flubber," with "Home Alone"-style slapstick throughout.

What's next? "Fantasia" with the dancing hippos setting up booby traps for the alligators? "Peter Pan," with the Lost Boys beaning Capt. Hook and Smee with water buckets? "Dumbo," with the flying elephant bombarding those older elephants who made fun of him with circus tent spikes?

- If all of this isn't enough, there are also such "updated" aspects of "Flubber" as making Brainard's fiance the college president (instead of the college president's daughter, as in the original film).

But it's a half-hearted attempt. The character (played by Marcia Gay Harden) really doesn't seem to be functioning as an executive in charge of a school of higher learning. Mostly she mopes around because she can't get married - and then she takes up with a slimy rival of the professor, though she clearly doesn't much care for him.

How is this reaching out to that "highly sophisticated film audience"?

Of course, despite all of this, "Flubber" is bound to be a big hit. But then, so was the first film. In 1961, "The Absent Minded Professor" was the fifth biggest film of the year.

And after a box-office lull, that movie helped re-establish Disney as a power to be reckoned with in the world of live-action movies, after years of dominating animated features.

"Flubber" will merely prove to Hughes and the Disney powers-that-be, that there is an audience so desperate for "family movies" that they'll buy anything if it's promoted heavily enough.

- FLUBBER REDUX: You may know that "The Absent Minded Professor" spawned a sequel, "Son of Flubber," in 1963.

But does anyone remember that Disney also remade "The Absent Minded Professor" in a series of cable Disney Channel movies in the late '80s? Honest! Harry Anderson (of TV's "Night Court") played Prof. Brainard.

Those shows don't seem to be around anymore. They never made it to home video, or the syndicated rerun circuit.

And they aren't mentioned in the press kit for "Flubber."

Trust me, however - they're somewhere in the Disney archives.

And when it's believed the shows can make money on video or TV, we'll see them again.