Director: Danishka Esterhazy
Cast: Dani Kind, Finlay Wojtak-Hissong
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“That’s disturbing – and incredibly dated,” says Rebecca (Sara Canning), stage manager of The Banana Splits TV show, after live studio audience member Jonathan (Keeno Lee Hector) invades her backstage office so that his young daughter Parker (Lia Sachs) can perform an unsolicited audition. The song which Parker sings as she dances – The Black Eyed Peas’ hit My Humps – was notorious for getting any young children who obliviously sang its lyrics out loud into trouble with their horrified parents. Yet Parker is singing this song at her father’s instigation. This isn’t even 2005 (when the single was released), but the present day – albeit an alternative present day in which The Banana Splits is still being made and aired, even if filming of the real Saturday morning kids’ show ended in 1970.
Directed by Danishka Esterhazy (Level 16), The Banana Splits Movie might also be accurately described with Rebecca’s words. The original show’s Tra La La theme song – an insidiously irritant earworm – has already been disturbingly reappropriated to accompany a massacre executed by 11-year-old Hit Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010). In this film, though, the entire innocent spirit of The Banana Splits Adventure Time is transformed into something darker, more sinister, and a whole lot bloodier, as questions of age appropriateness are repeatedly raised. It may still be a children’s show, but half the audience here is made up of adults, many of those either parents (like Jonathan) more keen on the show than their children, or else childless yet infantilised hipster nostalgists, like instagram-happy couple Thadd and Poppy (Kiroshan Naidoo, Celina Martin).
The ‘purest’ audience member is young Harley Williams (Finlay Wotjak-Hissong), a committed fan of the show who has been brought to this live recording for his birthday by loving mum Beth (Dani Kind) and not-so-loving stepfather Mitch (Steve Lund), and who still regards the show’s four oversized animal rockstars – Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky – as real. Harley is an ideal audience for the show, while his shy brother, Austin (Romeo Carere), with his wispy facial hair and high-pitched voice, is a 19-year-old still in that no man’s land between childhood and adulthood.
Meanwhile, the show itself, produced on “the oldest soundstage at Taft Studios”, is a relic of the past, its use-by date long since expired, and has indeed, unbeknownst to the audience, just been cancelled by Andy (Daniel Fox), a studio executive who wants to replace his slate of dated programmes with something edgier and modern.
All this serves as a reflexive commentary on what kind of film The Banana Splits Movie will be. Rooted in an older, now misfit TV format, it is in search of newer idioms for this post-millennial iteration, and shifts from bland kiddy entertainment to the horror genre. Those onstage characters – apart from disgruntled human sidekick Stevie, played by Richard White – are no longer people in big costumes, but animatronic robots, lovingly designed by puppet master Karl (Lionel Newton) to keep children entertained. Whether by accident or design, some bad code gets into their programming, and before you can say “Child’s Play reboot”, they are going all Westworld on the adults to ensure that the show goes on forever and ever and ever.
This spectacle of children’s puppets doing very adult things affords the same frisson of wrongness as Peter Jackson’s Meet The Feebles, Brian Henson’s The Happytime Murders or the award-winning stage show Avenue Q. The difference, though, is the reality, even familiarity, of the Banana Splits characters as a pre-existing intellectual property, here taken from U all the way to an 18 rating – so that Esterhazy’s film seeks overtly to sully the viewer’s innocence and childhood memories, splattering them copiously with the gory entrails of behind-the-scenes cynicism and encroaching mortality. Children may not be able to watch this film, but within its narrative, increasingly traumatised young ones are both the desired and actual viewership, a captive audience to disturbing onstage antics that certainly refresh the Splits’ old routines.
“I don’t want to get messy,” Parker tells her father when the interactive part of the show kicks off. The Banana Splits Movie is defined by messiness, as notions of adulthood and childhood, past and present, become confused, and the very attempt to keep a show frozen in time on repeat leads to atrocity and abomination. The film is beautifully lit and crafted, even if Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas’ screenplay is over-busy and unfocused in its (human) character dramas, and somewhat meandering at the cat-and-mouse end of its narrative. It is crazily subversive, if never particularly funny, and it is as mean-spirited as any monster/slasher mix should be, while always pulling its punches (and saws and hammers) when it comes to the younger – or just nicer – characters. Mostly, though, the film is there to toy with our cosy ideas of nostalgia, showing that even the most dated cultural flotsam and jetsam can be reprogrammed to disturb, concealing beneath their rosy tint a bloody stain.