"And you come up with images in [Invincible] that are so remarkable, including these countless red crabs in this one, that are so frightening to me--because they are life, yet they are mindless and they just keep going on and on despite whatever we think or whatever we hope."
-Roger Ebert to Werner Herzog
"The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn't call, doesn't speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don't you listen to the Song of Life."
-Item 10 of Herzog's "Minnesota Declaration"
There are a few basics tenets I have followed during my initiation into the world of film criticism: 1. That art is made up of subject matter and a perspective; 2. Frivolousness is not a substitute for offering a perspective--rather it is a perspective in and of itself; 3. Artist intentionality is less than meaningless, as perspective is often constantly being informed by greater cultural, social, and subconsciously psychological forces; 4. In light of tenets 1,2, and 3, one should be careful of dismissing the film you are reviewing, in particular because most of those you will be tempted to dismiss are frivolous, and dismissing them only advances their mission to secularize and marginalize the cinema.
Such theories appear to go clear out the window in writing about The Adventures of the American Rabbit. This certainly isn't a good movie; I can't honestly say that I derived a good deal of pleasure watching it. But what's really gnawing at me is just how utterly stupid it is. It's really stupid. Really, really stupid. I know that by "stupid," we tend to mean that the filmmakers don't seem as worldly as us the audience, or even that they underestimated the breadth and depth of our sophistication. If The Adventures of the American Rabbit were stupid like that, then I think that I could begin to understand it. But no, The Adventures of the American Rabbit is stupid in the way that Herzog's red crabs are stupid. It's a living, breathing thing, but it's mindless.
I once knew an anthropologist who argued that all religion was essentially an attempt to anthropomorphize natural phenomena so that they are understandable and, moreover, manageable. Some things, apparently, resist anthropomorphization and as a result can be neither understood nor managed; I cannot, for the life of me, attribute any distinctly human characteristics to the people who made The Adventures of the American Rabbit. Any human being, no matter how mentally incapacitated, would be cognitively developed enough (by the very fact of their humanity) to never produce a film like this. Perhaps it is the work of amoebas.
The Adventures of the American Rabbit starts off simply enough. Robert Rabbit is born to two ordinary rabbits and raised with a sense of justice and compassion towards others. Impressed with Robert's altruistic values, a withered old magical rabbit bestows upon him the powers of the American Rabbit, which includes superhuman (super-rabbit?) strength and the ability to fly. The American Rabbit is the newest in a line of very special heroes who carry on "The Legacy," defined as the fight for justice and "goodness." The film's mythology is heavy and primal--we're told that this hero has existed since the beginning of time, and Rob's father betrays familiarity with the idea of "The Legacy," suggesting that the concept has a deep religious significance to their village community. None of this exactly squares with the ridiculous pop iconology of the American Rabbit, who grows roller skates on his feet and physically transforms into a rabbit version of the American flag. But at this point, I'm almost nit-picking.
Rob finds a job as a piano player at the Panda Monium, a nightclub run by a middle-aged panda bear. He eventually gets to heading a rock band, and as they grow more and more popular they decide to go on tour. Meanwhile, a gang of biker jackals, led by the mysterious Vultor, have set their sights on the town and try to shake down the Panda Monium and other local businesses for protection. The American Rabbit thwarts their plans, leading the villains to plot revenge against the superhero. And this is where the movie lost me.
The jackals kidnap Rob's gentle gorilla friend Ping (voiced by Garfield himself, Lorenzo Music) by disguising themselves as a telegram service. A telegram service? In 1986? Ping's so-called friends express a modicum of curiosity about his whereabouts. "That's Ping's comb," Rob exclaims at the train yard where the ape was seen with a suspicious messenger. "Yes--and that's a hypodermic needle," the panda replies, "but so what?" The group decides that they better get going or they'll miss their gig. Later, the American Rabbit rescues Ping from the jackals and returns him to the rest of the party. Nobody acknowledges his presence, just as nobody much acknowledged his absence.
Pollyannic young film critic that I am, I thought that I didn't "get" The Adventures of the American Rabbit at first. I would have to pay closer attention to pick up on the details. As the film progressed, however, I soon realized that there was nothing to get. The movie literally does not make a lick of sense. There is no internal logic to the piece and nothing has been thought-out. In a best-case scenario, its script was cobbled together in a 48-hour period from old Bugs Bunny cartoons, episodes of "The Smurfs", and Richard Donner's 1978 Superman. They maybe even employed a little Ralph Bakshi, particularly with the biker weasels. None of these influences go together, or else the filmmakers haven't bothered to bridge them.
The Adventures of the American Rabbit is not good satire, it is not good action, it is not good slapstick, and it is quite certainly not great art. As green as this statement may make me look, the film marks the first time I've actually begun to think that some pictures just plain do not deserve to be criticized, analyzed, or considered in any capacity. To paraphrase our beloved former First Lady Barbara Bush, why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like this?
With that said, I guess that the film supports my view of the '80s as being an essentially pro-cultural period. The heroes have a bit of a progressive slant: they protest the presence of the jackals with a grassroots march that casually evokes Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, while Rob's friends are a diverse batch of gorillas, dogs, pandas, moose, and rabbits--an aspect that I probably wouldn't bring up if the film were not explicitly self-conscious about its racial diversity. And of course these values are represented by the flag-covered American Rabbit, implying that the values of the counterculture of the '60s have become prevalent, distinctly American values. Still, the picture stops shy of ever developing a concrete moral centre. Rob is turned into the American Rabbit because he understands the value of teamwork, and yet the very concept of the American Rabbit necessitates that he work alone. Rob resists presuming that all jackals are evil simply because they are jackals--and yet every jackal in the film does in fact mean him and his friends harm, justifying his original prejudices. The Adventures of the American Rabbit is worse than moralistic--it's carelessly moralistic. You could say that it's too dumb to be square.
The nonsense reaches a peak during the third act, when the villains kidnap and enslave two chocolate-producing moose, believing that if they are able to control the chocolate they'll be able to control the world. Huh? Do these two moose represent the entire world's means for chocolate production? Their ploy doesn't exactly work, thus they lean back on simply wiring New York City with dynamite and threatening to blow it up. This coerces the American Rabbit to surrender, the terms of which are that he has to read the jackals' new laws while circling the Statue of Liberty. At this point, the film gains heat. The jackals take over the police station and broadcast their propaganda through the local stations. The score is heavy on the synthesizer and a scene where the jackals torment a wino dog evokes Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange in a rather sincere and unconscious way. The American Rabbit begins to feel real despair about his role as a superhero, before of course adopting his identity for good. The film closely follows the well-traveled path of the Campbell's Hero Cycle--after he's completely overwhelmed by defeat, the hero rises again to triumph over his adversary.
The thing is, this is still very sloppy work, and I believe more than ever that the people behind it are single-celled organisms. And yet, it still works, and I am still deeply affected by it. For all their fumbling, the filmmakers managed to hit my cinematic g-spot, and on some level I can't help but forgive them for a multitude of sins. I really wish that The Adventures of the American Rabbit were totally terrible, but since there is at least a small measure of craft to it, I'm forced to acknowledge that I can be as easily manipulated as a lump of Play-Doh.
"This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit your screen," says a title card before the feature. That's right: although The Adventures of the American Rabbit is the rare cartoon framed at 2.35:1, MGM's DVD release is fullscreen only. I have to admit that the image never looks particularly crowded and that the transfer is clean, bright, and takes full advantage of the film's basic colour scheme; I've always thought that animation tends to make the smoothest transition to the digital format, as it doesn't have any organic relationship to celluloid. (But, of course, I object to the omitting of the film's original aspect ratio on principle.) The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is clean and shows great clarity of detail--you can clearly hear the magic rabbit's cane tapping on the cobblestone. There are absolutely no extras on this disc.-Alex Jackson
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Published: September 19, 2005