(Alan Shapiro, USA, 1996)


Apart from the occasional reference to Red Hot Chili Peppers and the curse of “eat my butt” issuing from a teenage mouth, this big-screen version of the original TV Flipper comes across as a time capsule from the 1960s. The music, especially, reinforces this impression, with its constant stream of The Beach Boys, Tom Jones, and even Crosby, Stills & Nash supplying a little heavenly ba-de-da to accompany the graceful flight of dolphins.


The ‘60s veneer is not merely a nod to the old TV series. This Flipper is a canny marriage of two trends in mid ‘90s pop culture: on the one hand, cute animal films for children, such as the delightful Andre (1994); and, on the other hand, all those post-Northern Exposure TV shows set in places like the Caribbean, where old hippies hang out and pursue a relaxed, natural lifestyle.


There’s a touch of the Dysfunctional Family Blues, too. Sandy (Elijah Wood) is a sullen young teen, reluctantly sent to the island of Coral Key to stay with his flaky Uncle Porter (Paul Hogan, aka Crocodile Dundee). Sandy’s hasty escape from this Hell is halted – of course – by his discovery of the lone dolphin, Flipper. And also by the urgent need to protect this adorable fellow from those Bad Guys in boats who kill fish and dump toxic chemicals in the water.


So much of Flipper is familiar and predictable, but that scarcely detracts from its mild, easy-going entertainment value. Beyond the standard themes of learning responsibility for oneself and the environment, writer-director Alan Shapiro (The Crush in 1993 – and nothing whatsoever since 1996) works in some pathos about “belonging” – an issue for Sandy and Flipper alike.


Australia’s own Hoges is a problem. This role as a garrulous bachelor provides him with a welcome image-change. But his way with speaking a line – whether “I was grunge before they had a word for it” or “It’s like they say, to live is to love” – is extremely stilted. And the scenes devoted to his classic “inability to commit” to his suffering girlfriend, Cathy (Chelsea Field from Snapdragon [1993]), are just awful.


Still, once we are on or below the water with the dolphins – especially when bathed by blue moonlight – this Flipper washes away all doubts and critique. And the fact that the big, scary shark in this tale is named Scar proves that, these days, even films for kids cannot resist working in an allusionist homage to John Ford’s classic Western, The Searchers (1956).

© Adrian Martin June 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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