You've heard of him, I'm sure, but perhaps haven't seen him: Sasquatch, Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman -- these are all names for the legendary, perhaps nonexistent, creature of legend and lore. But the Hendersons just call him Harry.
It's not a bad name for him, really. He's about the size of your average sofa, but with Joan Crawford shoulders and a tiny waist. The Hendersons, George (John Lithgow), Nancy (Melinda Dillon), Ernie (Joshua Rudoy) and Sarah (Margaret Langrick), bump into him quite by accident. One day as they're returning home from a camping trip, he streaks out in front of their car and gets knocked cold. At first, it looks as if Dad has smashed into Chewbacca. They might be mistaken for each other -- from the back -- but Chewy never stank like this thing. Holding their noses, the family wrestles him unto the roof of their Country Squire and carts him home. His carcass tucked safely in the garage -- they think he's a goner -- the Hendersons turn in and spin dreamy dreams of Carson and Letterman and Donahue.
Directed by William Dear for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, "Harry and the Hendersons" is about the little lessons a Seattle family learns when confronted with the Big Guy. It's about learning to be human and, on that level, it's utter schlock -- cloying, manipulative and overcute.
You could see it on another level, though -- as a comedy about an obnoxious houseguest -- and feel a little kinder toward it. In its ruder moments, the movie resembles a homey remake of Jean Renoir's "Boudu Saved From Drowning." When Harry first shows up in the Hendersons' kitchen, rummaging through the refrigerator for late-night snacks, he's every host's nightmare of the unwanted overnighter; he's the dread in-law-come-a-visitin' writ large.
Dear, working from the script he wrote along with William E. Martin and Ezra D. Rappaport, has a great style for comedy. He gives the bits with Harry roaming through the house, redecorating as he goes, a real boingy crispness. Visually, it has some of the feel of Mad magazine, though it's less aggressive and junk-crazed. Dear is at his best when he's doing purely physical stuff -- like when Harry is stretched out in Dad's recliner, hooting at "The Addams Family" or when Lainie Kazan, the family's busybody neighbor, prances over -- and at times he gives a hint of the slapstick energy Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale have shown in their films.
In the early scenes, you think that Harry himself might be a great character. He's a big, Arthur-Rackhamish figure, like a giant troll out of the Brothers Grimm, with a high, sloping brow and a great, gray beard. (What he really looks like is a 7 1/2-foot-tall Danny DeVito.) And the scene in which he's revealed to us, lit only by a spinning flashlight and the refrigerator bulb, is a gem. But that's before he becomes a squeeze toy. Harry, it turns out, is a sensitive soul. He's got a woebegone expression and doleful bedroom eyes that he blinks girlishly when the moment turns tender. And turn tender it does, at the drop of a hat.
Though it's no chore to watch really, "Harry" keeps coming at you with gooey messages about animals -- Harry's a vegetarian -- and the wonders of nature and believing in miracles and you just want to shut the thing off. When she says her lines, Melinda Dillon is in a world all her own, and John Lithgow is the bestest Disney Dad ever -- better even than Dean Jones -- but the movie won't leave you alone long enough to enjoy them. (Don Ameche, as a Bigfoot fanatic, is shoehorned into the movie, but he has a kindly presence anyway.)
Cinematographer Allen Daviau has a great feel for soft, cushiony suburban light, but it's a tough light for laughs. Actually the movie isn't that interested in laughs; it wants to enlighten us. Daviau's dewy tones are better for the rapturous mood of "E.T." (which he also shot) and that's the chord the filmmakers want to strike. They set to make a tall tale on the order of "Jack and the Beanstalk," but essentially the movie is sketch material padded out with sentiment. Yet Spielberg and Co. go for the big feeling anyway. With "Harry and the Hendersons" they've tried to build an epiphany machine. They're people with a mission: Single-handedly, they want to restore wondrousness to our lives -- and it not's a proposition we get to vote on either.
Harry and the Hendersons, at area theaters, is rated PG and contains nothing offensive.