At cross porpoises

Flipper flounders by being dull for adults and kids

You have to wonder what compels capable actors--aside from pure greed, of course--to want to appear in franchise entertainment packages like Flipper.

After all, it's been predigested and massaged so much it hardly qualifies as a legitimate movie. Rather, it is an extended anecdote--or at best, a shaggy-dog story. There can't be anything remotely rewarding artistically in playing dull, cookie-cutter characters of the kind these movies elevate to starring roles, and a location shoot in the Florida Keys can't afford much promise to an Aussie native like the star, Paul Hogan.

Now don't misunderstand: Kid films can be great--I wouldn't trade the world for Babe, and the current release, James and the Giant Peach, holds plenty of appeal for kids and adults--but I can't figure what sense of pride would accompany having your name attached to pandering, dreary little movies like Flipper.

And Flipper is just that. Calling it a "loose adaptation" of the '60s television series is just a way of saying it has a precocious dolphin as its hero. After that, the similarities end, mostly because there isn't much to develop by way of themes: Flipper befriends a young boy--Elijah Wood, tackling every scene with a pained, inexpressive face that makes it look like he's recovering from dental surgery; young boy saves the dolphin's life and treats him as man's equal; Flipper saves young boy to repay the favor; villain is humorously but decisively defeated; patrons exit the cinema, possibly with mawkish smiles frozen on their faces.

I get a little miffed at the casually melon-headed social preaching these movies dispense with politically correct reverence every summer. Modern film grammar seems wedded to the belief that marine life demonstrates the ideal political structure: Aquatic mammals are the closest any society has come to Rousseau's paradigmatic noble savage, living in a peaceful oligarchy unspoiled by the trappings of modernity. Smart but unmechanized, they live happily by their wits and enviably self-sufficient skills. (Ted Kazynski should have been born a fish.) Obviously, their purpose is to teach mankind subtle lessons about genuine equality.

That's nice, in the same way a Hallmark card is nice. But unfortunately the cinematic system of conveying this ideal has not progressed much since the days of Lassie:

"What is it, Lassie?"
Woof!
"You say Timmy's in trouble?"
Woof woof!
"You say he's fallen down the well and you can take me there?"
Arf!

Only now it's done with the high-pitched sonic squeal of the bottle-nosed dolphin rather than the familiar bark of a collie.

As with the whale in Free Willy, it's hard warming to Flipper as a sympathetic character. Part of the reason is that his role in the plot is as a third-party protagonist, a mostly absentee presence who turns up at opportune moments to make us feel good about ourselves. Unlike a character such as Superman, who shows up when he's needed but is always visible in the guise of Clark Kent, Flipper doesn't occupy much screen time. The screenwriter-director, Alan Shapiro, struggles to come up with reasons for the humans to hang out near the pier and for Flipper to linger in the shallow lagoon around them rather than frolic in the open seas.

But a more elemental reason we don't grow attached to Flipper is because, frankly, he's not as cuddly as, say, a dog. Fish make odd pets, as a rule; the word "pet" doesn't really even apply, since it's rare that we touch them. I think fish should be sold in florist shops, not pet stores, since they share more with flowers than other animals: They look nice, they aren't noisy or messy, you keep them in water, and you throw them in the garbage when they die.

Of course, dolphins are mammals, not fish, but the detachment--the distance we experience--recognizes no such scientific distinction. Flipper seems to be the perfect animal primarily because his world is so different from our own, not because he's any better.

Such a presumption can be infuriatingly off-putting. I can't help but be suspicious of a movie that purports to know what's best from a moral-development standpoint for children. What kinds of lessons is this movie really teaching? Well, for one, it says that the villains in life are always easy to spot--they're the paunchy, beer-swilling weaklings-of-leisure, tooling around in a big yacht named the Bounty Hunter, blasting Tom Jones songs as some heavy-handed reminder of the corrupting sodom that is Las Vegas and, by extension, contemporary American society.

By contrast, the good guys are charming roues making a "real" living fishing from a boat called the Reliable. Their music is an authentic, native-sounding reggae with steel drum; they do everything short of singing "Kumbayah," making love beads, and volunteering for Greenpeace. You have to question whether this black-and-white attitude is performing a disservice to kids, especially when there are so many other films that cover the same territory much better.

Most of these things probably wouldn't bother me too much if I felt there was a reason for any of it, but Flipper doesn't display any creativity at all. Like last year's sappy stinker Magic in the Water, Flipper is gimmicky at every turn. Shapiro includes shots of bait buckets for no purpose other than to elicit exclamations of "Blagh!" and "Gross!" from the pre-adolescent audience, yet the plot becomes awfully convoluted for preteens to follow. The idiot-savant character--the one Flipper, by being his lovable, rubbery self, brings out of his shell--is a four-eyed slicker-wearing geek named, of all things, Marvin.

The contrivances eventually reach a boiling point: When the scary storm that bashes the boats around looks not like the terrifying gale in White Squall but the opening credits to Gilligan's Island, you have to throw up your hands in disgust. Isn't it bad enough that the movie is virtually unwatchable? Do they have to make it worse by stealing its few ideas from even more reprehensible "classic" television shows?

Flipper. Universal. Paul Hogan, Elijah Wood. Written and directed by Alan Shapiro. Opens May 17.

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