Disney can expect a big box office bounce during the holiday moviegoing season with “Flubber,” easily the best of the studio’s recent attempts to recycle past hits as updated remakes. After a slow, singularly unpromising start, this new version of “The Absent Minded Professor” (1961) emerges as funny and frenetic family entertainment with possibly greater cross-generational appeal than last year’s live-action retread of “101 Dalmatians.” Ancillary prospects, especially in the homevideo sell-through market, are nothing short of stellar.
In the role originally essayed by Fred MacMurray (and later revived for TV by Harry Anderson), Robin Williams is unusually subdued as Philip Brainard, an easily distracted college professor. The effort is a mite too obvious in early scenes, as Williams overstates the character’s foggy-headedness, to the point of seeming less absent-minded than seriously impaired. But once he gets into the laboratory to concoct the title substance, Williams hits his stride and never looks back. Quite by accident, Williams’ Brainard invents Flubber — “flying rubber” — a greenish translucent goo with a mischievous personality all its own.
Unlike the original “Professor,” which depicted Flubber as little more than a generic glob of tar, the remake has a magical, morphing co-star created by Industrial Light & Magic and visual effects supervisor Tom Bertino. At times, the little critter looks like a malleable bean bag. But as it bounces, dances, subdivides and reconnects, Flubber proves to be as versatile as computer-generated ectoplasm. It even has something of a voice, provided by Scott Martin Gershin.
At one point, director Les Mayfield simply stops the story in its tracks to make room for an elaborate production umber, as Flubber transforms itself into dozens of energetically pulsating Flubettes that mambo to the music of Danny Elfman. The sequence goes on too long, but it’s dazzling enough to enchant youngsters and amuse grown-ups.
Fortunately, Brainard makes his discovery just when his university is on the verge of bankruptcy. Unfortunately, Sara Jean Reynolds (Marcia Gay Harden), the university president who also happens to be Brainard’s sweetheart, isn’t interested in learning about this miracle of modern science. She’s too angry at the professor for once again forgetting to show up for their wedding.
Wilson Croft (Christopher McDonald), Brainard’s longtime professional rival, hopes to steal both Flubber and Sara. But while he woos the college president, another interested party enters the equation. Chester Hoenicker (Raymond Barry), a wealthy and corrupt businessman, learns about Flubber when his two bumbling flunkies (Clancy Brown, Ted Levine) pay an unannounced call to the professor’s home.
At first, Hoenicker wants only to strong-arm Brainard into giving a passing grade to his spoiled son (Wil Wheaton), who was booted from the college’s basketball team after flunking chemistry. But he becomes far more ambitious after his flunkies report how they were assaulted by Flubber-coated bowling and tennis balls.
John Hughes did the rewrite of the late Bill Walsh’s original screenplay, and, predictably, the creator of “Home Alone” emphasizes comic mayhem and physical shtick. (When Levine is pounded with the bowling ball, all that’s missing is a glimpse of Macaulay Culkin shouting “Yes!”) But some of the funniest bits are updated and expanded gags from the 1961 comedy. Using various permutations of Flubber, Brainard is able to make his ’63 T-Bird fly — MacMurray’s professor had to make do with a Model-T — and provide additional lift for his college’s struggling basketball team. Not surprisingly, the action is faster and more elaborate here, thanks to the greater sophistication of high-tech camera trickery.
Instead of a helpful housekeeper, Williams’ Brainard has a talking and flying pint-size robot named Weebo. Voiced by Jodi Benson, and equipped with a video monitor to punctuate her words with vintage film clips, Weebo is the kind of charismatic gizmo that every child in America will want to find under his or her Christmas tree. (Gee, do you think the Disney folks have already thought of that?) Just as important, Weebo has far more personality than many of her human co-stars, and even sounds a poignant note or two with her unrequited love for Brainard.
Still, Weebo raises one distracting (and, of course, unanswered) question: If Brainard needs money for his university so desperately, why doesn’t he sell the patent for a talking, flying, multifunctional robot?
Except for a few moments of improvisational silliness with Flubber, Williams pretty much remains in character throughout the story. He makes an engaging impression, and lends credibility to his character’s relationship with Harden’s miffed but eventually supportive Sara.
Harden is a good sport, McDonald is an aptly oily villain, and Barry plays it straight as the more seriously troublesome Hoenicker. As the flunkies, Brown and Levine are appropriately cartoonish, though not quite distinctive enough.
Despite a couple of slow stretches along the way, director Mayfield does a generally fine job of integrating the eye-popping special effects with the simple but serviceable plot. The pace is just brisk enough to satisfy youngsters with short attention spans, and Williams is winning enough to keep audiences of all ages involved.
Technically, “Flubber” is state-of-the-art across the board. To be sure, the flash and pizzazz might not be enough to make the remake seem warmer or wittier to those with fond memories of the original. But “Flubber” succeeds well enough on its own terms to suggest that, like “The Absent Minded Professor,” it could spawn a sequel. A new “Son of Flubber” may not be long in coming.