Belly Talkers

You don't have to be a dummy to guess that this entertaining Sundance documentary explores the world of ventriloquism. Structured as an "on the road" exploration, Sandra Luckow's film wheels along a historic highway and right up to the present-day status of the art that dare not move its lips. Although its unusual subject is fun and fascinating, the picture's hour-plus running time seriously dampens theatrical prospects.

With:
With: Candice Bergen, Edgar Bergen, David Copperfield, Alicia Dacoba, Spencer Horsman, Shari Lewis, Ronn Lucas, Sandra Luckow, Jimmy Nelson, Willie Tyler, Liz VonSeggen, Dr. Tom Wilkinson, Paul Winchell.

The Egyptians apparently called them “belly talkers,” and the Oracle of Delphi presumably practiced the art. You don’t have to be a dummy to guess that this entertaining Sundance documentary explores the world of ventriloquism. Structured as an “on the road” exploration, Sandra Luckow’s film wheels along a historic highway and right up to the present-day status of the art that dare not move its lips. Although its unusual subject is fun and fascinating, the picture’s hour-plus running time seriously dampens theatrical prospects.

But TV and video sales should be brisk for the docu, which is produced by the wife and sister-in-law of Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein.

Luckow’s attraction to a film on ventriloquism comes naturally. As a child, she learned to throw her voice and created an alter ego with a puppet named Juanito. While the film wisely avoids the clinical psychology route, the Mexican marionette gave voice to a part of her personality that shyness would not allow to come forward.

The film chooses not to dwell on archival material, either. Still, such a document would be incomplete without mention and footage of the likes of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and the Muppets. One choice clip offers the slivery McCarthy in a head-to-head with Miss Piggy.

There’s also mention of fictional films dealing with ventriloquists, which have tended to characterize the practitioners as schizophrenic.

It’s in unfamiliar territory, however, where the film excels. Modern-day “belly talkers” range from pros who use their skill as motivational tools at trade shows to voice throwers who promote religious credos. Docu also looks at a child psychologist with the gift and a performer who segued into making dummies as a career.

Bolstered by interviews with some of the more famous contemporary ventriloquists, the film is a celebration of the arcane entertainment that stands on its own merits. Its director deserves kudos for a novel, joyful approach.

Belly Talkers

(Docu -- Color)

Production: A Miramax Films release of an Elegant Films production. Produced by Eve Chilton, Maude Chilton. Executive producer, David Linde. Directed by Sandra Luckow. Screenplay, James Gabriel.

Crew: Camera (color), William Rexer II; editor, Ann Collins; music, Jack Maeby; sound (Dolby), Brad Bergbom, Mark Mandler, Daniel McIntosh, John Zecca; creative consultant, Jay Martel. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 1996. Running time: 68 min.

With: With: Candice Bergen, Edgar Bergen, David Copperfield, Alicia Dacoba, Spencer Horsman, Shari Lewis, Ronn Lucas, Sandra Luckow, Jimmy Nelson, Willie Tyler, Liz VonSeggen, Dr. Tom Wilkinson, Paul Winchell.

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