A Simple Wish

(aka The Fairy Godmother, Michael Ritchie, USA, 1997)


1997 presented Australian film buffs with several opportunities to ponder the diverse, usually sad fates of the best American directors of the '70s.

The re-release of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) reminded us that Arthur Penn is now, for all intents and purposes, missing in action (at least from the screen). Blood and Wine (1997) offered Bob Rafelson as a humble genre craftsman, far from his glory days. The Devil's Own (1997) showed how completely Alan Pakula's talent and taste had deserted him before his death the following year.

A Simple Wish is a spirited entertainment for children directed by Michael Ritchie – a filmmmaker once ranked, in the era of The Candidate (1972) and Smile (1975), with such quirky, innovative artists as Robert Altman. Only once in the ensuing two decades – in the extraordinary telemovie The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993) – did Ritchie (who died in 2001) return to his early, dazzling form.

As in that gem, there is one sure sign of Ritchie's personal involvement in A Simple Wish – he himself supplies the lyrics for the film's superb parody of a contemporary theatrical extravaganza, a musical adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. Alas, such cheeky artistry is only embroidery at the margins of the plot.

This is essentially a mildly camp, slightly wicked, occasionally surreal take on a tale of fairy godmothers. Martin Short gives a passable imitation of Jerry Lewis as Murray, a 'male godmother' who has an ongoing problem being accepted in his role, even by children. Murray has in fact a rather wobbly command of his magic powers, as little Anabel (Mara Wilson) discovers when her father Oliver (Robert Pastorelli) is accidentally converted into a statue.

Anabel only wants her simple wish – to improve the theatrical career of her father – to come true; this film exists, of course, to teach her (and us) that no wish is ever, truly simple. Especially not when the forces of benevolent, white magic are eternally duking it out with the representatives of the dark side – here incarnated in the misanthropic, fallen godmother Claudia (Kathleen Turner).

There is much in A Simple Wish that is fast, funny and inventive. Murray's wonky wand-work regularly takes the characters on strange transports and detours. The spectacle of a Godmother Association meeting in a plush New York mansion for its annual convention is a splendid conceit. Amanda Plummer's pantomime turn as Boots – Claudia's faithful dog given human form – is a treat.

And, while Short's manic physical antics miss the mark as often as they hit it, his confrontations with the malevolent Claudia possess real wit and energy.

© Adrian Martin September 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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