Whilst it’s always a delight to see this charming film, its shortcomings are many. It doesn’t help that the 35mm print used at BFI as part of their complete season of director Jack Clayton’s work is really starting to show considerable age.
One of my main problems with the adaptation has always been Disney’s presentation of the two young heroes, Will (Vidal Peterson) and Jim (Shawn Carson). In the autumnal setting of Ray Ballard’s sublime book the boys are on the cusp of their 14th birthdays as the Cooger & Dark Pandemonium Shadow Show steams into town, ready to prey on their inner fears. Whilst age appropriate in casting, we never quite believe the two moppets on screen have an inner life, let alone one on the brink of turmoil. Which rather ruins why Mr Dark is suddenly so interested in them, Jim in particular. The casting of Jason Robards as Charles Holloway is also way off; he’s just too impossibly cool chomping on his cigars to suggest a man hidden away in his books, afraid of much, ashamed of his older age, struggling to have meaning in his young son’s life.
The storytelling seems similarly unsteady on its feet, like it has just stepped off a wild spin on the carousel. The terrifying sequences from the novel where the sideshow folk prey on the townie’s fears and vanities, are so quick and convoluted we never quite get a clear sense of what’s going on. Further light and dark is removed by making Cooger just a threatening hulk (it’s meant to be Cooger AND Dark’s… after all…) who only gets one age-defying spin. And whilst I’m on the demerit side of the ledger, the luminous Pam Grier – almost unrecognisable as the Dust Witch – could have cast real magic, mystery and threat over proceedings but instead just wafts around town like the limply animated FX light show we see later.
Why bother with it? There’s a brief moment near the end when Mr Holloway steps into the Mirror Maze and the film’s lurch into something more visionary, more violent begins. That shot alone is worth the price of admission, as is the dramatic climax of practical FX as lightning rod salesman Tom Fury’s (Royal Dano) storm finally arrives to cleanse the land of its shadows. Such moments draw out the best of James Horner’s excellent score.
What also endures is Bradbury’s poetry which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise in this self-penned adaptation of his own novel. Given that the much-loved book supposedly started off as a story treatment for the screen (with Bradbury’s pal Gene Kelly pitched to direct!), it’s a delight to hear his rich words resonate around the auditorium, particularly as Mr Dark hunts the boys down in the Green Town library, a moment where an otherwise bemused Jonathan Pryce also comes into this own.
In brief: Whilst it’s always a delight to see this charming film, its shortcomings are many. It doesn’t help that the 35mm print used at BFI is really starting to show considerable age.
Seen at: BFI Southbank as part of A CLASS OF HIS OWN: THE FILMS OF JACK CLAYTON, London/UK (12 DEC 2021).