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March 30, 1989
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This city needs a drifter
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Brian Levant is one of those names that meant a lot to the childhoods of many people, even through they may not know this. Levant has never been that celebrity we all know... and yet, he marked an entire generation of kids with his movies. This is an essay that I wanted to make for quite some time, but I think I lacked the will to do so, maybe thinking Levant would not be an interesting topic. However, as I saw "Jingle All the Way" recently on television, I felt I should tell whoever would bother to read the story of Levant, why he mattered, what I think of his movies, and where he is now. Levant observed kids were not stupid or wimpy, and long before the edgy cartoons of today, he was giving children - and their parents - films that really challenged our idea of what is "family-friendly" entertainment. He may not have started this philosophy, but he was an important element to popularize it and even to shape it for the Old Millennials.
Once again, Levant is not a relevant figure today, at least not enough to merit extensive biographies in Wikipedia or IMDb, so there's not a lot of information on him. Nevertheless, there are plenty photos of him in the internet, and the guy looks... uncanny. Levant was born in Illinois, 1964, and he began his career on television, writing episodes for an assortment of shows, most noticeably "Happy Days". He didn't have a background in children's shows: he wasn't writing episodes for "Sesame Street", but for sitcoms and things of the sort. In 1983, he directed a television movie based on the series "The New Leave it to Beaver", but that was it. He was mainly making a living as a telly writer... but one who was getting the attention of Hollywood.
In the 90's, Universal Pictures wanted a sequel for the considerably successful "Problem Child", which was directed by Dennis Dungan (we know him today for his collaborations with Adam Sandler). John Ritter, Jack Warden, Gilbert Gottfried and many other actors from the previous film returned to reprise their characters, and it was once again written by the scriptwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who had made their official debut in the previous film.
"Problem Child 2" was Levant's debut, and the man was determined to outdo what Dungan had accomplished in the previous film. "Problem Child" was noticed for having a cynical approach to the family niche, so Levant wanted to make the sequel bigger, louder and mostly important edgier: to take things to the next level. It wasn't enough that there was a misbehaving boy wrecking havoc amongst people, as now there's a girl too, for double destruction. Levant and the writers pulled all the stops, and eventually, for all its content, the film got a PG-13 rating. But that didn't make it less of a kids' movie, because that's precisely what it was. It had all those gross things kids adore.
The film was released in 1991, on the very same day another sequel was launched... this little movie called "Terminator 2: Judgement Day". And surprisingly, it beat James Cameron's film at the box office that day. But such fortune was short-lived: "Problem Child 2" eventually only grossed little more than 30 million dollars during its whole theatrical run - less than half of what the previous film had done. Some people blamed the excessive poor taste, while others blamed the rating that avoided parents of bringing their kids to theatres. Some blamed the competition, namely "Judgement Day", while others declared the film felt in that valley of being too childish for adults and too adult for children, as it similarly happened with Bryan Singer's "Jack the Giant Slayer".
But from my part, it was a good film: it had a very wicked eye for slapstick and ribaldry, the acting was decent, and there were plenty of funny moments to make for a competent comedy. Besides, with a budget of around 15 millions dollars, the film didn't really bomb, and it became incredibly popular on television, where it finally found its audience. So Levant still was in the game. He introduced himself and Hollywood liked him enough to give him a new assignment. Meanwhile, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski would move on to more adult works like "Ed Wood", "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and then eventually "American Crime Story" - in a way, you can see in their earlier films that they weren't really into kiddie stuff.
Levant's second film was one of the most iconic family movies of the 90's: "Beethoven". It was co-produced by Ivan Reitman and co-written by John Hughes (under the pseudonym of Edmond Dantès, a character in "The Count of Monte Cristo"). It's not right to say that Levant was now in the big league - he wasn't quite there yet, but he definitely was working with some serious heavyweights of the movie industry.
"Beethoven" tells the story of a St. Bernard dog who is adopted by your traditional American suburban family, and named after the famous Austrian composer because... he barks along with the Fifth Symphony. "Amadeus" this film is not. Soon, shenanigans happen due to the new pet, but there is however a more sinister plot: in the great tradition of "Home Alone", two inept burglars are after him (one of them is Stanley Tucci!), under the command of an evil medic seeking for test subjects for his experiments.
I don't like this film: it's a very clichéd and formulaic animal comedy, and one that is understandably dated. But it was well constructed and paced, showing Levant was a competent storyteller even if the story was not that strong. It's not a film that I would consider quintessentially from Levant (it's much more a late John Hughes film), but it's not garbage.
Released by Universal in 1992, the film was a hit, making over seven times its 18 million dollars budget, spawning many sequels and becoming a staple in animal comedies. Levant showed he could deliver profitable films that hit a string with American audiences, and that he was a competent director. The time was right for Universal to trust him with a bigger project.
Levant reached his apex in 1994 with "The Flintstones". It was produced by Steven Spielberg, one year after his smash hit "Jurassic Park", so he wanted to do another dinosaur-themed film, albeit one more suited for families. And an adaptation of Hanna-Barbera's utmost beloved cartoon seemed like the perfect choice. It starred John Goodman, Rick Moranis, Elizabeth Perkins, Rosie O'Donnell, Elizabeth Taylor, and a very young (and very beautiful) Halle Berry. It even had a very appropriated cameo by the B-52's - in there, properly named the BC-52's.
The film had a budget of 46 million dollars, which was quite a sum for the early 90's. And on top of that, it was released under the heavy competition of 1994. But it performed wonderfully: it was a smash hit of 341 million dollars, and even to this day, people still enjoy it. Critics didn't love it: they accused the film of being too adult for kids, not just for its double entendres, but also for its plot that was deemed too complex for kids to follow. And indeed, I remember that when I used to watch it on television, the plot was too confusing for me. But then, I still enjoyed the film for its characters, for what I could indeed understand. And that's why the film was so successful: "Flintstones" had something everyone could like, even if not everyone could understand. It genuinely cared about having an intricate plot of commercial ploys and deceits that adults could enjoy, while speaking in a lenguage kids could assimilate. It's funny to think that I actually appreciate this film more as an adult, for now I can understand it fully.
It was a smart film. It wasn't like Disney's lazy, awful "Mr. Magoo" from 1997 starring Leslie Nielsen, which too tried to adapt a beloved classic cartoon, but had an insipid stock plot (say it with me - the mystery of the missing diamond!). "The Flintstones" was made with a lot of care, and it didn't patronize its audience.
Not to mention... the film looked beautiful! The scenarios, the sets... everything looks immersive and believable. Bedrock comes across as a functional city, where everything has a propose. Unlike "Jurassic Park" with its realistic dinosaurs, the film tried to replicate the dinosaurs of the cartoon as loyally as possible, and by making use of practical effects as much as it could. The acting was great; even to this date, people declare O'Donnell as Betty was a terrible casting choice, but everybody in the film embraced their characters with great enthusiasm, and there were plenty of chemistry amongst them. There were even genuinely sad moments, like when Barney feels sorry for Fred being so stupid, or when Fred's world starts crumbling around him after he's wrongly accused of firing his colleges - those were some heavy moments.
Overall, "The Flintstones" was not a masterpiece, and some of the criticism it received - and receives - is valid. But it's still a damn good film, and it showed that Levant could handle such bigger projects. The man was in very good terms with Hollywood, making family films that were really family films - works that all the family could enjoy. And once again, that wasn't his background, as he was typecasted that way. But he embraced that typecast, almost like if that was where he belonged.
Naturally, Universal wanted to make a sequel for "Flintstones"... but for determinate reasons, it didn't come so soon. So let's put a pin on this subject and move on.
In 1996, Levant had a change of scenario from Universal to 20th Century Fox, with the Christmas comedy "Jingle All the Way" - the film that inspired me to review Levant's career. It was made in the last years when Arnold Schwarzenegger was still a top celebrity: today he became a parody of himself, but back then, he was still hot after the mega hit "Terminator 2", and Hollywood wanted to put him in as many films as possible. They even had this belief Schwarzenegger was a malleable actor, able to make R-rated action films such as "True Lies" and more family-friendly films such as "Junior". The film also starred comedian Sinbad as a mailman, the late Phil Hartman as an annoyingly perfect neighbour, and even Jake Lloyd from three years before his underwhelming turn as Anakin Skywalker in "The Phantom Menace".
"Jingle All the Way" was meant to be not only the main Christmas movie of the year, but also one of the biggest Christmas movies ever, with its budget of 75 million dollars, and with someone like Schwarzenegger as the lead. It was produced by Chris Columbus, who was dead set at leaving from under John Hughes' wing and to become a fully accomplished director-producer himself: the film was released under his own production company.
The story is about a father who tries redeem himself for being such a lousy parent by finding for his son the most requested toy of the Christmas season, and all the adventures that unfold from his quest. Joining him (or should I say hampering him), there's a postal worker who's also after the toy. The film today is mostly remembered for its impossibly cartoonish climax, when Schwarzenegger and Sinbad impersonate the toy characters during a parade, and it's funny to think that many people who remember this film today imagine it to have been all about that, in a Mandela effect kind of way. And that is because the rest of the movie is just... forgettable.
The film was hit-and-miss. It felt like it wanted to vex the Christmas season instead of celebrating it (as exemplified in a moment when Schwarzenegger has to fight a group of counterfeiters impersonating Santa Claus), but it didn't have the brilliance of "A Christmas Story". The overall idea film would have been better suited for a Saturday Night Live season special rather than a feature film, even if it was only 89 minutes long. The movie was very predictable, and you can foresee in a first viewing what it will toss at you.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a very charismatic actor, and he has a lot of presence on screen... but the thing people don't seem to understand (or accept) is that he's just not a very good actor. He was great in the "Terminator" movies because T-800 was already an inexpressive character - ether as a villain or as a hero. However, Sinbad really steals the scene, and every scene with him is actually very gratifying: maybe the film should have been about him instead, and with Schwarzenegger as the main bad guy. Curiously, Jake Lloyd was better in here than he was in "Menace", and that's because after all, he was playing himself: a wide-eyed kid.
When we look at it, it's very much a Brian Levant film: it was meant for kids, but also for adults. It tried to be edgy and to tackle themes kiddie films don't usually tackle. It may not have succeed, but it tried, and for that, I respect this film, even if I don't think it's good.
In the end, the film made disappointingly 129 million dollars - in comparison, "Home Alone" made over 400 millions. That was Levant's first true disappointment, and it may have marked the beginning of the downfall of Schwarzenegger. But the film eventually made its money back, so Levant was still in the game.
After producing yet another "Leave it to Beaver" movie (albeit one theatrically released this time) Levant returned to Universal to finally make that "Flintstones" sequel. But coming out in 2000, when the interest wasn't there anymore, "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas" was a film that came too little, too late. Now, I don't have a lot of information about the production of this film, but I have a vague idea of what happened in there. So don't take my assertions as facts: this is just a hunch, but one I think is very likely to be true.
You see, someone in Hollywood had the idea of making the sequel for "The Flintstones" as the family going to a pre-historic version of Las Vegas, conveniently called Viva Rock Vegas (an aggressively bad name. Couldn't they have gone to Rockapulco?). It was the classic sequel in which the characters go to a different locale, like the fabled "Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian" sequel that never happened. The problem however is that some actors, not surprisingly, didn't like the idea, and the sequel kept on getting pushed over and over. Of course it could be possible to make the film without some of the actors... but it would look nonsensical. So Universal got fed up, and decided to call a whole new cast and to make the film into a prequel. And they really wanted the Flintstones in Rock Vegas (I mean Viva Rock Vegas).
When the film was released, people were puzzled. Granted: "The Flinstones" was not that old of a film in 2000, being merely six years old (to give you some context, seven years stand between "The Terminator" and "Judgement Day"). But it felt... desperate. A film foisted into a market that wasn't there anymore. The momentum was over, and they really wanted to capture that old magic, but without knowing how.
For starters... that fucking plot. We didn't need to see the family in anywhere else other than Bedrock. While the film once again boosts great production values and feels overall immersive, the plot feels like trying its hardest to replicate the complexity and adult leanings of the first film, but failing at being interesting. And worst of all, the film is a prequel, meaning it tries to stabilize the canon of the characters, instead of just simply giving them a story. The film also introduces the Great Gazoo, one of the most beloved characters from "The Flintstones" cartoon. Gazoo was played by Alan Cumming with his traditional panache - more than that, he also played this bizarre yet amusing Mick Jagger parody in the film. Cunning was hands down the best actor in the film, specially given how none of the other actors really registered on screen. But once again, "Viva Rock Vegas" is a prequel, so where was the little green bastard in the first film?
William Hanna and Joseph Barbera appear in cameos, and Rosie O'Donnell even voices a massager octopus - apparently that was to confer some authenticity to the film. But it became the typical sequel for a beloved film you didn't know that existed, like "Son of King Kong" or "The Sting II". It aged even worse than the first film, and "The Flintstones" didn't even age all that well itself. There was no other destiny for a film like that other than to fail at the box office.
If "Jingle All the Way" was Brian Levant's first real disappointment, "Viva Rock Vegas" was truly his first bomb, making little less than 60 million dollars over its 83 millions budget, being his most expensive film. It was quite a blow, but it was understood the film was a producer-heavy project, and Levant was there just under their command. Don't shoot the messenger, right? So he was still in the game.
Two years later, Levant had his first (and so far last) project with Disney: "Snow Dogs", which is a film I keep on confusing with "Eight Below", the other Disney movie about snow dogs from the 2000's. It feels odd that it took so many years for Levant to make a movie for Disney, maybe because his modus operandi was too much for the company to handle at the 90's.
"Snow Dogs" was a family film without kids on screen, almost like if it indeed wasn't a family film. It stars Cuba Gooding, Jr. and western icon James Coburn - it was his second last film to be released before he died in November of that year. Some people say that he was yet another miscast, but the funny thing about watching him in that movie is that his casting actually makes some sense. Coburn is one of those American grit actors, and the memories we have of him are memories of men struggling in the inhospitable wastes of the West. What this film did was to put that man in the inhospitable wastes of Alaska.
It was the classic fish-out-of-water story: a Miami dentist heirs a pack of Siberian Huskies in Alaska (couldn't they be Alaskan Huskies then? Nah, I'm just nitpicking), and he starts to unearth the truth about himself. While it wasn't precisely bellow average, it was just too much formulaic and predicable, even if tried to have some intricacies. It's that disposable movie, good to see once and then never again. Not because it's bad, but because you don't have to.
People usually declare "Snow Dogs" was among the projects that ruined the career of Cuba Gooding, Jr., along with "Boat Trip" and the grotesque "Norbit". But the case I want to make is that it was also the beginning of the end for Levant himself. It may have been a modest success, making 115 million dollars on a budget of 33 millions, but from there on, it was downhill for him.
In 2005, Levant released "Are We There Yet?" - the film we all use to ridicule Ice Cube; the cross he'll carry for the rest of his life. I mean... how do you even do this? How does one go from "Straight Outta Compton", one of the most powerful albums ever made, to a film like this? What twists and turns happened in a career for something like that to happen? Did Ice Cube really need the money so badly? Is this... is this what would have happened to Eazy-E if he was alive today? Shitty family films?
It was the first movie Levant did for Columbia, and it was his second Christmas movie. But unlike "Jingle All the Way", the film was much less ambitious, with a budget of 32 million dollars. It just wanted to make some bucks, and by watching the film, this shows. It was a road movie much closer to "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" rather than "Home Alone", telling the story of a man who drives all the way from Portland to Vancouver to deliver a boy and a girl back to their divorced mother. The guy hates the kids, and the kids definitely hate him back. But as the trip goes... look, if you don't know what happens, shame on you.
I mean, the film had some good ideas (such as the kids struggling with the divorce, wanting their parents to be together again), and even with its formulaic story, it could have been fun, like "Despicable Me". But the film was just so boring! It's like if you were in an actual road trip: you may be asking "are they there yet?" yourself. It's just blend and forgettable... only that it's not forgettable - as I said, it's the cross Ice Cube will carry forever.
The film performed very well, given its low expectations. It did over three times its budget, and even originated a television series. But that's not even the worst part. The worst part is that, believe it or not, it had a sequel, "Are We Done Yet?", also starring Ice Cube. Once again, it was an incredibly fitting title. Were they done yet? Of course not! 'Cos Ice Cube loves the dough, man! Actually, now that I think about it, that's a pretty gangsta move (maybe Eazy-E indeed would be joining him as well for that sequel).
After that, Levant spent the next three years without directing anything. Levant isn't a full-fledged producer like Chris Columbus or Adam Sandler, who can get things done by himself. He's more of a director-for-hire: he's there for producers to call him, whenever there's a project that feels like his ballpark... only that they weren't calling him anymore. So it was in that situation when he accepted to direct a "Scooby-Doo" television movie for Cartoon Network. That was back in 2009, when the channel was infamously investing in live-action content over animation, before "Adventure Time" and "Regular Show" put it back on track. "Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins" was halfway meant as a sequel to "Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed", but it had none of the original actors, meaning no-one is sure if this is a sequel or a reboot.
I'm not to judge a film I haven't seen. It would be easy and maybe right to presume it's a piece of crap, but if there's a faint chance it's marginally good, I won't do it. However, I am analysing the context: this is a television movie, the best opportunity Levant had at the time. It felt like things had reached full circle for him: he was back on television. He had great adventures in the big screens, many successes, but like Frodo and Sam returning to the Shire after all they went through, so did Levant return to television. His long journey was over... or was it?
In 2010, Levant released two movies. One was yet another "Scooby-Doo" television film, "Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster", but the other was a Lionsgate movie starring Jackie Chan, "The Spy Next Door". That was his chance to have a comeback, the chance for him to prove there was still room for him in Hollywood. It was now or never for Levant. "The Spy Next Door" was a blatant rip-off from the "Spy Kids" movies by Robert Rodriguez, as well as "Kindergarten Cop" or any other film when action stars have to deal with kids. But this film had Jackie Chan, one of the greatest geniuses of action cinema, so this must count for something... right?
Nope, it was a terrible film. It may very well be Levant's worst, and that's saying a lot when you have "Are We There Yet?" in your filmography. It was panned by critics all across the board, not to mention the film was a commercial failure, making 45 million dollars on a budget of 28 millions. Maybe that was what really killed Levant in the end: it was common for his films not to be loved by critics, but in Hollywood, the only thing that matters is how much you make in relation to how much you expend. It doesn't matter if you're Pixar or Michael Bay: quality is irrelevant for honchos. And had that movie made over 100 millions, maybe he would still be in the game.
"The Spy Next Door" was just a setback for Chan, as he would continue to have a profitable career in America and China. But that was, as for now, Levant's last theatrically released film. Hollywood was done with him. After that, Levant directed straight-to-video movies "A Christmas Story 2" in 2012 and "Max 2: White House Hero", released in May of this year. DVD sequels that nobody was asking for... that's life for Levant now. And there's no indication he's about to have a triumphant return any soon. Maybe, he can make a television movie for Cartoon Network or even HBO that will be something noticeable, something like "7 Days in Hell". That's the only way I see for him to make his way back... but I find that unlikely.
Why am I defending Levant? Why did I just dedicate a small yet irreplaceable moment of my life on a man even I admit most of his movies were mediocre? Is it out of blind nostalgia?
I'm not defending Levant for his films; I'm defending him for his concept.
Once again, Levant has only made a couple of good films (from my perception), but the general idea of his filmography is something he was never acknowledged for. Once again, this may be because his movies were not good, but at very least the intent should be recognized somehow. Directly or indirectly, Levant helped to shape the way we look at family entertainment now, by making films that didn't hold back. And while obviously other artists improved over Levant's raw intentions by delivering far better films, they still had that philosophy. A philosophy such that Levant didn't create, clearly, but he elevated it to a next level of popularity.
Maybe, for his talents, Levant couldn't be the one to improve over that idea, so there obviously needed to be those who would pick it up for him. And once that was done, once Pixar came into scene with its magnificent films, the time of Levant began to end. He passed the bastion to better people, and now he's done with celebrities and big projects. The mission is over, and Levant will always have my respect for his deeds - even if they weren't so good.
Maybe one day he can create a cartoon for Cartoon Network, or maybe even Adult Swim. I would be the first to watch it.
I'm Gustavo, from Rio de Janeiro. I graduated in Cinema, and I enjoy taking pictures of unique moments while wandering around my city like a dirty old hobo. I also do some mediocre drawings: not that it's relevant or anything. I like keeping up with my football team Flamengo and just enjoying life while it lasts.
Favorite visual artistPatrick NagelFavorite movies2001: A Space Odyssey; Akira; Apocalypse Now; Babe; The Big Lebowski; Blade Runner; Brazil; Chariots of Fire; Das Boot; Ed Wood; The Endless Summer; Lawrence of Arabia; Midnight Cowboy; The Princess Bride; The Seventh Seal; Spirited Away; Taxi Driver.Favorite TV showsBatman: The Animated Series; Cosmos: A Personal Voyage; Courage The Cowardly Dog; Moonlighting; Oz; Seinfeld; Sherlock; South Park; Top Gear; Will & Grace; The Wire.Favorite bands / musical artistsBlack Sabbath; The Church; The Cure; The Doors; Focus; Mark Isham; Kraftwerk; Led Zeppelin; Bob Marley; Pat Metheny; Charles Mingus; Pink Floyd; The Police; Queen; Rush; Tupac Shakur; Thin Lizzy; Aphex Twin; Vangelis; Stevie Wonder; Frank Zappa.Favorite books100 Years of Menswear; 1984; Animal Farm; Dom Casmurro; The Exorcist; Fight Club; From Hell; In Cold Blood; The Little Prince; Sex, Drugs & Magick; When We Were Very Young.Favorite writersMachado de Assis; Michael Crichton; Phillip K. Dick; Arthur Conan Doyle; Sam Harris; Franz Kafka; Rudyard Kipling; A.A. Milne; Alan Moore; George Orwell; Robert Anton Wilson.Favorite gamesBanjo-Tooie; Bully; Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas; Half-Life; The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time; Max Payne; Need For Speed Underground 2; SimCity 4; Super Mario 64; Team Fortress 2.Favorite gaming platformPersonal ComputerTools of the TradePaint.netOther InterestsA little thing here, another thing there... a bit of everything.