I remember a commercial from some old VHS from a kid's movie that advertised a movie called North. It gave away no real specifics, only showing a lad leaving his house and embarking on some sort of journey. All of this was easily conveyed through the visuals, but there was also an announcer who reminded me that this boy, named North, was leaving home and yes, going on a journey. I was always curious about the film, but my undeveloped child brain only processed, "North? That's a dumb name for a person to have." For once, curiosity never got the better of me, but I never forgot that oddball little trailer, perhaps the first one I ever saw that didn't tell me what I really needed to know about the movie.
Then, about a year and a half ago, I saw the name again. Already a film nut by that time, I was always looking for something else to sink my teeth into. One day I was idly sifting through old Siskel and Ebert reviews, and I stumbled across the one for North. Recalling that damn trailer I for some reason never purged from my memory, I thought, "Why not?" Here's what I saw:
Jesus Christ. I'd seen these two tag-team to take down some crap before, but never with this kind of bile. They didn't even look like they were having fun slamming it -- if you slapped some blue paint on their faces, they could have been extras in Braveheart. Naturally, this outpouring of white-hot loathing led me to Ebert's review (why Gene Siskel's reviews have not been archived and released online is a mystery and a tragedy, especially to us younger cinephiles), and it's even better. After tearing into it for the entire review, he ends with this now-immortal passage: "I hated this movie. Hated hated hated hated hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it. Hated the implied insult to the audience by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it."
And this is Roger Ebert we're talking about. Not Anthony Lane, not Ray Carney. Roger Ebert. I want to say "And this is the guy who named Crash as the finest film of the year!" but I fear it would be taken the wrong way; I do not mean to play that tired game of "How could he give this a positive/negative review he panned/praised Movie Y!" Rather, it proves Ebert's outlook on film: he is, in his own inimitable-yet-influential way, the biggest fan of film currently working as a critic. He's the man who will find something to praise in even the blandest of movies, to the point that he sometimes even gives them positive write-ups. As much as the more snobbish of filmgoers might regard his penchant for handing out too many three- and four-star reviews (as if it makes perfect sense to allot a set number of positive reviews one will give for the year), he's the Everyman of critics who just so happens to know so much about writing that he never hits you over the head with his talent.
Ebert gave the film zero stars. Let's stop for a moment and consider this, and to see what other films he's awarded with that rareüber-pan. Three films which come to mind immediately are Caligula, Chaos and I Spit on Your Grave. That means that Roger Ebert, being of sound mind and body, placed North, a children's fantasy film, on roughly the same level as three films that all feature graphic and exploitative rape scenes. At this point my schadenfreude senses were tingling so strongly I knew I had to watch it.
Sadly, though perhaps not without good reason, the film never made it to DVD. Unwilling to comb the Internet to buy a VHS copy of a movie I only wanted to see out of pure cynicism, I checked various streaming sites, to no avail. Dejected, I contemplated the experience that might have been, and even made up my own story. I knew the basics, but not any plot details, so I came up with stuff that might potentially earn the everlasting ire of one of the most affable critics to ever retain his credibility in the face of overwhelming optimism. Most of it involved racism. Well, I was surfing YouTube Friday when, to my delight, the Recommended tab led me to North.
North concerns its titular hero, an 11-year-old with good grades, good manners and a boatload of extracurricular activities. He's the kind of child any parent would love to have, but his own parents, played by Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus -- and if that wasn't a ploy to capitalize on Seinfeld, I'll buy a hat just so I can eat it -- are too self-absorbed to notice. The father is a pants inspector, and I never quite caught what the mom did because I was still so caught up on the dad's occupation. Let me just say this, if you like pants jokes, stop reading this right now and go to YouTube. Nay, track down a hard copy, because you'll be so overjoyed you're going to want to hug this. Mr. North's Dad not only has rants about pants, he's got tirades in store for the young executive who got the position based on nepotism.
The film opens with this rant, and North's mom joins in about the whatever-her-job-was-that-wasn't-quite-as-outrageous-as-pants-inspector and North, fed up with it all, has a panic attack. In the very first scene. We don't see this family interact, we don't learn anything about these characters, he just has a panic attack. And I know that Elijah Wood was a child at the time, but it's a miracle his career lasted long enough for him to even audition for The Lord of the Rings, much less win the lead. He might as well have just screamed "I AM HAVING A PANIC ATTACK!" instead of collapsing and yelling.
The episode inspires North to seek legal emancipation from his parents, in the hopes that he might find a pair who would give him the love he so richly deserves. He's aided in his endeavors by the 6th grade "journalist" Winchell, played by Matthew McCurley in a performance that is sure to make you utterly capable of striking a child. In fairness, the writing does nobody any favors, but everything about him is subtly enraging. He not only prints the story, which, despite being the paper of an elementary school, somehow finds itself on the doorstep of every house in town. Winchell sets North up with a slimy lawyer (Jon Lovitz) whom -- in the only moment of the film that even came close to eliciting a laugh -- we meet literally chasing an ambulance.
North takes his parents, who have slipped into a coma-like state from the shock of all of this, to court, presided over by a judge played by Alan Arkin. He tries, and terribly, terribly fails, to channel Groucho Marx, and the line "The defense rests" is, as the Nostalgia Critic rightly noted, one of the worst one-liners in movie history. He awards North emancipation, under the caveat that he must find a new pair of adoptive parents or reconcile with his biological ones by midnight on Labor Day; otherwise, he will be placed in an orphanage.
With North's "credentials" on full display, offers come flooding in, and soon the boy is off is search of love. If you thought these first 15 minutes were arduous, just wait. As it turns out, my imagined story, full of racism and inappropriate humor, hit shockingly close to the mark. The prospective parents are meant to symbolize some aspect of American society, but it resorts to such cheap stereotypes and such jarring adult humor that there isn't a laugh to be had.
First you've got your big Texan family (Dan Aykroyd and Reba McEntire), who naturally represent rampant greed, but the joke is old when you first see them, sitting pretty in their 100-ft-long stretch limo. They want the biggest and best of everything, so they set about fattening up North, and even have a big ol ' song about fattening him up. They make light of the death of their biological son -- who of course was massive-- in a stampede, calling it "a mighty big loss." For some reason, they wear the sort of cowboy outfits that 3-year-olds dress as for Halloween.
And it only gets worse from there. Reiner clearly wanted to make a fantasy epic, but for some reason was unwilling to take the story outside of America. So he travels to Hawaii and Alaska in the hopes that people will buy them as faraway lands and not States of the Union. Governor and Mrs. Ho do at least acknowledge that Hawaii is a state, but he makes it out to be an exotic place of wonder nonetheless. Mrs. Ho speaks with a grating Asian accent, and Mr. Ho disturbingly informs his prospective son that "There is only one barren area on all of our islands. Unfortunately, it's Mrs. Ho." Then he unveils his real reason for adopting the wunderkind: so he can turn North into a poster boy for the state to increase tourism, because if there's one thing Hawaii doesn't have, it's a booming tourist industry. His solution is to plaster North's face on billboards featuring a cheeky octopus pulling down the boy's pants to expose his...well, cheeks. North is understandably horrified, but he just can't manage to get a laugh no matter how many times he rages over "his most private of crevices."
The racism builds to a fever pitch in Alaska where they spray Kathy Bates with orange tan and pass her off as an Eskimo (notice the proper term "Inuit" isn't used). I can overlook the fact that all the houses are made of ice, and even the idea that the extended daylight of summer somehow means that they can't process time. But when they send grandpa (Abe Vigoda) out on an ice floe to die with dignity. I nearly broke my laptop. That practice was never common even at its zenith hundreds of years ago, and they certainly weren't doing this in the mid-goddamned-'90s.
Are they serious? This is a film for children. As much as I detest the constant condescension from everyone but Pixar when it comes to films geared towards younger audiences, I do know that they aren't misunderstood geniuses. While they don't mistake fiction for reality as much as some politicians might say, how many kids would look at the stereotypes depicted on-screen and simply accept them?
Guiding North through his travels is a guardian angel of sorts, played by Bruce Willis. Clearly stuck in his post-Hudson Hawk, pre-Pulp Fiction era (thank God that bailed him out in the same year as this), Willis phones it in and relies on his various costumes -- ranging from an Easter bunny to a product-pushing FedEx man -- to spout some half-formed philosophy about family and life and terrible puns ("North? Always been one of my favorite directions."). He also does the voiceover narration, which is the only aspect of the film that even manages to be unintentionally funny: it makes Harrison Ford's rushed, emotionless delivery in the theatrical cut of Blade Runner sound like a track that combines Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones and Orson Welles. It's hysterically bad.
Ultimately, North realizes that his family wasn't so bad, and even when he finds nice people he feels as if he doesn't belong -- yep, this adoption parable concludes with the epiphany that you won't fit in with anyone but your real parents. But in his absence, all the other children used North's example to essentially terrify their parents into submission. Winchell, with the help of the lawyer, has established himself as one of the most powerful people in the world, and he knows that a reconciliation between North and his parents will end his power trip. So he tries to have North killed.
After 80 minutes of insufferable failed gags and cheerful racism, I thought it couldn't get any worse. Then I got to the end. If for any reason you've read this far and still feel like seeing it for yourself, if only to see if it's really that bad (don't), then leave now. After all that lead-up, all that hare-brained philosophy, we reach the end and...
It was all a dream.
I give up. I realize I've done nothing but describe the plot this whole time. It's because I watched this two days ago and I'm still in shock. I slept on this, and my hatred of North hasn't lessened one iota. How could anyone have approved this? What did Rob Reiner see in this? Rob Reiner! He was one of the most dependable filmmakers of the '80s. When Harry Met Sally. The Princess Bride. Stand By Me. This is friggin' Spinal Tap. He might not have been the greatest and most visually impressive director, but he had the Midas touch when it came to quality scripts.
What's saddest about this film is that clearly these people thought they were making the next great fantasy epic. But it's hard to be The Wizard of Oz when you travel to completely real, not-that-exotic locations and try to make them out to be mystical wonderlands. At one point Governor Ho mentions how people don't treat Hawaii like a part of America, but Alan Zweibel's script and the ridiculous set and costume designs of both Alaska and Hawaii clearly alienate them from the continental U.S.
I genuinely feel sorry for the cast and crew. The kids no doubt thought they were a part of something huge, and Reiner and Zweibel seemed sure that this was going to be yet another hit. But nothing works. The physical humor and sight gags range from dopey to offensive (including a bit involving a Hasidic Jew at the pants factory), and it's downright vulgar at times. Throwing in some truly adult material is nothing new to kid's fare: classics ranging from Rocko's Modern Life to Ren & Stimpy to Pixar features all inject gags that most under 16 couldn't get, but it's just outright terrible here (the 'barren' line, for example).
The actors fare no better. Arkin is just awful, and Willis might as well have been waving his paycheck at us when he was on-screen. McCurley should be used as Exhibit A for all those who detest children in film: he's grating, mugging, shrill and desperately unlikable, even beyond the point that, as the villain, you're not supposed to like him. I actually wonder if the film originally had no villain -- and it certainly suffers for having one, because all of the scenes with Winchell the lawyer Belt break the already-shambolic flow -- but they rewrote the part when they got too far into shooting to recast and discovered just how terrible the kid was. I know this is awfully mean, but McCurley -- who got his start, like most children, in commercials -- never got any substantial work in the industry after this, and it makes make oddly glad. Wood fares the best out of anyone, which is good, I suppose, as he's the lead, but even then he really only looks decent compared to everyone else.
After sitting through this thing, I must agree with Ebert. I hated every second of this film, in the way that I detest torture porn and whatever offensive, insane commercial for Jesus that Kirk Cameron is working on this week. I'm not the kind of person to really go after child actors -- despite my general antipathy regarding their performances -- but I suddenly understood how some grown people could be so vicious to these kids. This movie is worse than such legendary pieces of trash as The Room and Manos: The Hands of Fate, because at least they lapse into unintentional comedy. This film is shooting to be funny, and therefore when it fails, it fails big. I don't even know why I watched the whole thing. Had I been old enough in '94 to see a film by myself and know how to process it, I would have unquestionably left and asked for a refund, something I've never done. While time has eroded some of its legend to show the beating heart underneath that really wanted this to be great, North remains one of the worst films I have ever seen, and I actively urge you never to watch it.