Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: Goosebumps "Bad Hare Day"

So before I actually review this episode, I need to provide a little background on the subgenre of “Real Magic Magician” stories. So I might as well start this spiel with a bit of personal history.

When I was a little kid, my first dream job was to become a magician.

And why wouldn't I want to be a magician? I mean, does anybody not like stage magic?

I mean, sure, it’s fun to make fun of David Copperfield’s billowy shirts and Criss Angel’s… everything, but who doesn’t like watching them work? Sure, some of them go a little overboard with the presentation, but magic’s always been a showy form of entertainment. And at its core, stage magic has always had a spirit of fun. It’s never about trying to con you (except for the conmen who use sleight-of-hand, but you know what I mean), it’s about putting on a show for the audience. Trying to make you wonder how they did what they did. Because they’re not telling.

You know the old phrase "A magician never reveals his secrets"? There's a lot of magician history tied into that saying.
As anyone who’s ever watched The Prestige knows, the magician business was historically filled with people trying to one-up each other. So not only is it important to keep the audience from figuring out the trick, it's important to keep other magicians from figuring it out, lest they make your audience disappear.

But there's another word in there. "Secrets."

It's not real magic (which, as I've explained, would just be science), but merely a little trick. An illusion. A prank pulled on the audience, if you want to see it that way. But one in the spirit of fun.

In the days of witch hunts and Puritans, magicians were quick to admit that despite their flashy showmanship, their magic was merely smoke and mirrors. But like wrestling fans, we largely don't care. We eat up a good trick, if only to try and figure out how they did it.

So the idea of a magician who's also a wizard, casting spells and messing with mystic forces, plays on the idea that there isn't any trick; that the guy onstage didn't pull a dove of his sleeve, but snatched it from far away by channeling mystic forces to momentarily bend space.

And thus, we have characters like Mandrake the Magician, Zatara, his daughter Zatanna, and episodes like this.

Plot
As far as the idea of these “Real Magic Magicians” stories go, this episode has some pretty standard elements of the subgenre. There’s a professional rivalry between magic users, a Muggle who gets caught up into the mix, and a magical MacGuffin.

It’s a plot so straightforward that our time would be better spent discussing why the original story was at the very least more creative.

Stories change when they’re adapted for the small or large screen, and Goosebumps is no exception, as I’ve mentioned before. But this adaptation changes one of the more bizarre things about the original story.
Amaz-O was a robot.

Not like that.
In the book, Amaz-O had been turned into a rabbit by an unnamed “evil sorcerer,” so he built a robot with his little bunny paws and operated him like a ventriloquist’s dummy. And it was Amaz-O who turned Tim into a rabbit at the end, so he could retire from his own show. Yeah, he was a bit more of a jerk in the original story.

All things considered, I’m not sure why Amaz-O was changed into an entirely decent human being, rather than a sarcastic rabbit. I guess it adds a bit more depth to the story by actually including the evil wizard, but it makes the story more generic by having Tim unleash a great evil that had been sealed away in the form of a rabbit.

Themes
“Be careful what you wish for” seems to be the lesson of the day, since every time Tim gets what he wants, it backfires on him. He gets to see Amaz-O, but misses most of the show. He steals Amaz-O’s magic, only for bad things to happen. He gets to work in show business, but only after being on the receiving end of a polymorph spell.

Characters
Tim Swanson (Dov Tiefenbach)
Tim seems like a normal kid with a hobby. And sure, he makes dumb decisions, but they’re understandable, given that he’s an impressionable kid with a dream that gets briefly shattered as he spends most of his hero’s show below stage.

Seriously, Amaz-O, you should have offered the kid a T-shirt or something.

Foz (Robert Hamilton)
Yet another bland best friend character. I guess they couldn’t cut his character entirely, since they need somebody to be with Tim in the opening scene, and Ginny wouldn’t really work for that, but the character makes more sense when you realize he had a larger role in the parts of the book that were cut out of the episode.

Ginny Swanson (Tabitha Lupien)
She really annoys me. But I guess that’s the point; she’s an annoying younger sister. So… job well done, I guess. Still, I’m not sure why she keeps gritting her teeth and snarling at her brother.

Amaz-O (Mike Carbone)
You may have noticed that I was a little unenthusiastic when it came to Amaz-O’s magic act. As I was watching him perform the old standards, I couldn’t help but think that they should have hired some local magician to do his act. Then I realized that they might have done just that.

As far as I can tell, this is not the case. Mike Carbone had a very brief stint as an actor before entering the world of “corporate comedy,” as his website claims. From what I can tell, he creates fake TV shows for use in corporate meetings. For example, the meeting heads will provide him with information that they need to get across, and he’ll come up with a fake news show or something that can be used instead of a boring ol’ PowerPoint.

As much as that seems like a career choice that could be made fun of, he’s apparently gotten wonderful feedback from businesses such as FedEx and Heinz.

So you know what? I wish you the best of luck, Mr. Carbone, and I hope your current career has been treating you well.

But unfortunately, I must criticize his performance. It’s not that good.

It’s hard to describe exactly how it’s bad. I mean, it's passable… but it’s like… there’s no difference between his performance when he’s onstage as a magician and when he’s talking candidly to Tim.
It’s like… have you ever been to a museum or something with non-actors being paid to dress up and act like they’re from Ye Olden Days? There’s that weird sort of disconnect and flat performance where they say everything as if they’re listing what they had for dinner for the past week? In a job interview?

It’s hard to describe.

And his magic act doesn’t make up for his performance. I don’t know if Mike Carbone was, in fact, a magician for a brief period, but the TV format was not kind to his tricks. I’m sure if Mr. Carbone was a magician, he probably had a few cool card tricks or something that weren’t used in this episode.

As much as I made fun of the tricks for being “standard,” he was at least pretty good at them. The disappearing doves trick, however, not so much. But that’s only because the camera was zoomed in far enough that you could clearly see the doves disappear into the table below. And the ability to pause and rewind didn’t apply to this episode until it came out on VHS and DVD, so I’m sure the effect was good enough for the time.

But you’d think they could have used a little TV editing to make his tricks more impressive and otherworldly, as they were supposed to probably seem.

...Holy crap, this is completely random, but I just thought of something that would have made this episode a million times better.

Okay, so keep the plot of the book, where "Amaz-O" is just a dummy controlled by a rabbit. Then cast Penn Jilette as the voice of the rabbit, with Teller as the dummy. And then dub over all of Teller's lines with Penn's voice.

...

I can now confirm that I will never have access to time travel, since I have not gone back and time to make this happen.

El Sydney (David Ferry)
I don’t know what was up with this performance. I don’t know if the guy was just having fun with the role, or if the director told him to be that over-the-top, or if he’d had just a bit too much coffee that morning, but dang, he needs to chill.

Ostensibly, the character should alternate between Nick Cage insanity and Jack Nicholson smooth-talking, raging at Amaz-O one second and getting on Tim’s good side the next, but the guy’s performance is continually set to 11.

I mean, this face sums up the performance perfectly.
In that way, it’s sort of the opposite of Mike Carbone’s performance. Instead of being continually flat, he’s continually… the opposite of flat. Heck, the background music gives him spontaneous rimshots.  

But with the jokes the script gives him... I can't really blame him from saying "Screw it, I'm having fun."

Visuals
The big green magic smudge that traps Amaz-O is not actually the effect that takes me out of the episode. I mean, yeah, it looks goofy, but the two big problems are the stage magic, as I went over, and the talking rabbits.

It’s very clear that they’re simply nomming on some peanut butter or something.

You can even see some on this rabbit’s chin.
I mean, yeah, it looks better than 1990s CGI would have, but they shouldn’t have zoomed in so close to the effect if they wanted it to look like anything other than chewing. Either that or they should have manipulated the film speed to match the movement to the words, though that may have been prohibitively expensive.

Barking Dogs: 0

Child Grabbing: 1
And oddly enough, it's not from the character responsible for locking Tim in a basement.
Foliage POV Cam: No

Red Paint: No

X-Files Shout-Out: No

Final Thoughts
It’s okay. It’s certainly stuck with me over the years as something that scared me out of the blue as a kid, but there are certainly better stories.

Next time, Nearly-Headless Nick gets totes jelly. See you then!

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