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'Flubber' Flies but Doesn't Soar

By John F. Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 28, 1997

IT'S A SIGN of the times that the remake of "The Absent-Minded Professor" has as its title, not a human character, but a special effect: an inanimate object. But that would be selling the object short. Flubber, the substance, has more personality than many Hollywood actors. And if "Flubber," the movie, isn't quite a slam dunk, at least it's a relatively bouncy way to spend an hour and a half.

As the movie starts, Prof. Philip Brainard (Robin Williams, wearing Fred MacMurray's brogues and lab coat) is struggling to discover a new energy source. The college where he teaches -- Medfield -- is bankrupt and threatened with closure. His fiancee, college president Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden), is wondering whether, after stranding her at the altar twice, her absent-minded boyfriend will show up for their wedding this time. And just waiting to scoop up Brainard's girl and his invention is the smarmy scientist Wilson Croft (Christopher McDonald).

It's only a matter of time before something explodes. And soon something does: Prof. Brainard's basement. The forest of glassware is reduced to rubble. The only thing left is a pressure cooker and the green glob it contains. Call it a "propulsive polymer," call it an "elastimer," call it flying rubber. By any name, it's still Flubber. A little Flubber goes a long way. Dropped on the ground it's like a Super Ball on steroids. Apply a thin layer to a golf ball and even Stephen Hawking can tee off like Tiger Woods. Stick it in a car engine and, well, doesn't every movie these days have to have a flying car? But the evil gangster who controls the university, Chester Hoenicker (Raymond Barry), wants to get his greedy hands on the green goo.

The movie has been updated since Disney's 1961 original. What was then a faithful canine companion is now a flying robot, Weebo. Voiced by Jodi Benson (who provided the vocal cords for Ariel, the Little Mermaid), Weebo is a jealous little bucket of bolts, eager to ace Sara out of the professor's life. As in the HBO sitcom "Dream On," Weebo punctuates (and comments on) the action by showing scenes from old movies on her video screen. And the Flubber itself is more than a mere blob. It has a puckish personality, showcased by a computer-generated Busby Berkeley-style dance number at the movie's midpoint.

Presumably because John Hughes is the co-producer and co-screenwriter (Les Mayfield directed), "Flubber" is filled with the "Home Alone" creator's patented pratfalls. A villain can't simply fall down. He has to look as if he slipped on ball bearings, go horizontal, hang for a split second in the air and then come crashing down flat on his spine. It was fresh when Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern were doing it seven years ago; it looks like overkill now. (The movie is rated PG, which you wouldn't expect, but there is a fair amount of slapstick violence -- bowling balls braining bad guys -- and one brief, giggly scatalogical scene.)

Parents dragged to the mondo-plex will find just enough here to occupy their minds -- Williams is funny, though not the uncorked ball of human Flubber you know he could be. There are contemporary touches -- at one point the professor says, "Sara, if we had wanted to be rich, we wouldn't have become teachers" -- but the movie isn't so hipped-up that it will go over children's heads. On the other hand, there are flat patches where anyone under 8 or so might fidget. Flubber may be more fun than a barrel of monkeys, but "Flubber" is a few monkeys shy of a kid movie masterpiece.

FLUBBER (PG) -- Contains slapstick violence, a kinda gross alimentary sight gag and a surprisingly touching scene wherein harm befalls a robot.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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