Published December 1, 1997
Flubber, directed by Les Mayfield, is a Disney remake of an original Disney movie of 1961 about a wonderful kind of “flying rubber” and called The Absent Minded Professor, directed by Robert Stevenson. It wasn’t a very good movie the first time around and it is, naturally enough, a much worse movie in the remake. Its essential mistake is not to realize that the title role, that of the other-worldly Professor Brainerd who invents the stuff and teaches chemistry at little Medfield College somewhere in the heartland, is a straight-man role, more suited to its first actor (Fred MacMurray) than to a manic comic like Robin Williams. Williams is too hip—which is to say, too knowing in the ways of the world—to be even remotely convincing as the nerd who suddenly breaks out of his shell, is taken seriously and admired. In this film he is a comic whose mobile face is unemployed, when what is wanted is MacMurray’s skill with the deadpan.
There are other interesting changes. The professor is called Ned in the original version, Philip in the remake, while his girlfriend was Betsy (Nancy Olson) instead of Sarah (Marcia Gay Harden). At one point MacMurray sings an adapted version of “Sweet Betsy from Pike” which is, I suppose, just too uncool for words, though it is perfect for the putative professor. But neither the name nor the song survives in the updated (and up-cleaned) version. Instead of being secretary to the president of Medfield, like Betsy, Sarah is (of course) president herself. Betsy is endearingly dumb in the old version and mistakes the Jefferson Memorial for Grant’s Tomb. When Brainerd sets her straight, she says, “Oh, you mean Monticello.” Of course no 1990s woman would make such a mistake! Nor would she say, as her boyfriend is about to land his flying jalopy on the White House lawn, “Oh, Ned! Not there!”
“Because my hair’s a mess and I haven’t got a thing to wear.”
It is interesting to speculate, by the way, whether the Monticello joke was cut as being sexist or just incomprehensibly intellectual to kids who will never have heard of Jefferson, Grant or Monticello.
Another change is that the dog, Charlie, to whom MacMurray talks incessantly, and his housekeeper, who urges him to go out and fight for the hand of the fair Betsy, have both become absorbed into the character of the flying computer called Weebo—conceived of as feminine and, Galatea-like, with a huge crush on her creator. At times this conceit begins to get worryingly twisted, as when Weebo is bashed by the comic bad guys that are the trademark of John Hughes (who co-wrote the screenplay). The professor and Sarah are united in mourning for the machine, and then discover that she has left behind a sexy daughter called Weebette. As they leave on their honeymoon in the flying car (a classic T-bird instead of a model T), Weebette sits in the back bickering with the protean flubber-man—who is green jello in the form, alternately, of a baby otter and the Pillsbury doughboy.
The 1961 version may be pretty brainless, but at least it is not terminally cute. In fact, Professor MacMurray’s treatment of his rival in love and the greedy businessman who wants to steal his formula would doubtless have come across to contemporary audiences as “mean,” and so is here softened considerably. Most interestingly, the new version cuts out the admittedly rather feeble but generous-spirited satire of the federal government bureaucracy, which is also hot on the trail of the miraculous flubber. And in the end, MacMurray’s Brainerd escapes with his invention so as to be able to present it to the government for the sake of the national defense effort, whereas Williams’s version sells it to the Ford Motor Company only to enrich himself. There’s another 1990s lesson to teach the children. Haven’t we come a long way in 36 years?