With the feature animation scene currently hammerlocked by such triumphs of lavish technology (and marketing) as “Toy Story” and “Pocahontas,” there may be scant room theatrically for an effort as endearingly old school, even anachronistic, as “Gumby: The Movie.” While wider kiddie-matinee exposure is possible for claymation pioneer Art Clokey’s pic (which has spent some time on the shelf), best chances for this endearing throwback are on the video shelf, where it could become a preschooler’s favorite.
Big-eyed, bright green adventurer Gumby made his debut nearly 40 years ago on “The Howdy Doody Show,” then became a TV staple alongside Clokey’s more biblically minded Davey and Goliath creations. This full-length vehicle hews to exactly the same naive, straightforward tenor, sans any hint of nostalgia or irony. Apart from Gumby’s “jamming” in a rock band, “The Movie” might easily pass for a mid-’50s artifact. (Even the in-jokes are ancient — vocal characterizations aping Ed Wynn and W.C. Fields.)
As such, it’s quite charming, though Clokey’s script is no world-beater. After a rather chaotic first 20 minutes, a narrative of sorts emerges: Two bad-guy “Blockheads” kidnap Gumby’s dog Lowbelly, because the pet weeps precious pearldrops. They substitute a robotic hound for the real one, then pull the same trick on Gumby and select pals.
Climax (which gets a little long) has our hero battling his own robo-doppelganger inside various storybooks, allowing meek spoofage of Arthurian and “Star Wars” epics.
That original morpher, Gumby– forever shape-shifting into new Play-Doh forms — along with his horsey friend Pokey, dinosaur Pickle, yarn-headed Goo and others, don’t boast much personality, and the vocal characterizations here are no more sophisticated than in halcyon days. But they are cheerful company, their mild slapstick antics and even milder dialogue (“Holy Toledo!” is unlikely to become the latest playground catchphrase) gently tuned toward youngest viewers.
More jaded older sibs may grow bored, while even nostalgic grownups will wonder at how little adult wit surfaces here. But “Gumby: The Movie” delights as a painstaking exercise in retro handcrafting — Astroturf, ribbon, painted backgrounds, toy trains, drawn-on-frame “lightning bolts” and so on, are quite plainly what they are, the colors blunt and bright.
It’s no accident that the “villains” employ mock “computer” technology, while haplessly cornball Gumby & Co. stage a benefit show to save the old farm. In animation terms, this flick says to hell — er, heck — with state-of-the-art gadgetry. It’s happily old-fashioned, albeit too fluid to call “primitive.”
Pace is fairly zippy, although storytelling focus does often grow diffuse. Pic is actually billed in opening titles as “Gumby 1.”