The effectively offbeat casting of Paul Hogan and some impressive underwater cinematography do much to enliven “Flipper,” an otherwise unremarkable attempt to revive the franchise that spawned two features and a popular TV series in the mid-1960s. Pic may benefit from dearth of early summer competition in the family-film marketplace. But it likely will prove more popular down the road in cable and video venues.
Writer-director Alan Shapiro has slightly updated the premise of the original Ivan Tors productions. In this version, Sandy, the teen hero played here by Elijah Wood, is an embittered child of divorce. And the ecologically conscious storyline has Flipper battling polluters who dump toxic waste into his watery environs.
Sandy is sent by his mother to spend the summer with his Uncle Porter (Hogan) , an easygoing ex-hippie who lives as a part-time fisherman and full-time beach bum in a coastal community near Key West. Right from the opening scene, it’s obvious that Sandy has an attitude problem: He wears sunglasses, a black T-shirt and a surly expression. And he doesn’t get any less surly when he finds he will be sharing a dumpy house and cut-rate cuisine with his uncle.
While out fishing with Uncle Porter, Sandy is a quietly horrified witness when some boisterous blowhards try to shoot a pair of frolicking dolphins. Impulsively, Sandy saves one of the dolphins by misdirecting the bad guys. Grateful, the dolphin follows Sandy back to Uncle Porter’s beachfront home in Coral”In a Strange City” review appears on page 10.
Key. Sandy names the mammal Flipper, and adopts him as a pet — much to the displeasure of local fishermen, who think dolphins are a menace to their livelihood.
As the avuncular authority figure who straightens out the troubled youth in his care, Hogan takes a dry-witted and refreshingly eccentric approach to playing a stereotypical character. His Uncle Porter is a laissez-faire fellow who frankly admits his failings as a role model, but who persists in providing some semblance of discipline for Sandy. Hogan comes across with more than enough Aussie-accented sass and vinegar to please fans of his “Crocodile Dundee” screen persona.
As Sandy, Elijah Wood manages to be appealing even when his character is borderline tedious. He gets capable support from Jessica Wesson as a cute local girl who befriends Sandy, Isaac Hayes as the community’s seagoing sheriff and Chelsea Field as a former U.S. Navy marine biologist who’s content selling bait in Coral Key while nursing a crush on Porter.
“Flipper” tootles along for nearly an hour with relatively little in the way of a plot. Eventually, however, director Shapiro feels the need to place Flipper and his friends in some kind of jeopardy. Dirk Morgan (Jonathan Banks), the snarling villain who takes potshots at Flipper in an early scene, turns out to be the one who’s dumping barrels of toxic waste in the local waters. He gets his , though not quickly enough. The whole adventure plays like an elongated episode of the old half-hour “Flipper” TV series.
Animatronics expert Walt Conti has done a bang-up job of making his “robo-Flipper” appear credible and personable. In some scenes, real dolphins trained by Danny Sams, Scott Sharpe and Paka Nishimura are used to portray Flipper. It’s a credit to the filmmakers that it is hard to tell which shots feature the real mammals, and which have the robot.
“Jaws” cinematographer Bill Butler handles the open-ocean lensing with his customary skill. (Pic was shot on location in the Bahamas.) Underwater photography by Pete Romano is beautifully sharp. Highlight of the pic’s musical score is Shaggy’s rap-and-reggae version of Mungo Jerry’s lone hit, “In the Summertime.”
Trivia note: Luke Halpin, the child star of “Flipper” (1963), “Flipper’s New Adventure” (1964) and the “Flipper” TV series (1964-67), makes a cameo appearance as one of the fishermen who isn’t happy about Flipper’s presence in their waters.