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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Your humble little movie has just been released to popular praise and box office bucks. In your own country, you’re successful beyond your wildest imagination, but real success lies across the ocean in one of the world’s biggest film markets. Should you dub your film or should you use subtitles?

If you’re Jean-Marie Poiré you do neither. You hire the same stars and re-make the same movie. That way, you’re more likely to win the adolescent male box office and you get to play with some new special effects.

Out of Water, Out of Time

Jean Reno and Christina Applegate, on a horse, on the El, in ChicagoJust Visiting is a standard fish-out-of-water story like “Crocodile” Dundee or Blast from the Past (or Ninotchka or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court for that matter).

French tough guy Jean Reno plays Thibault, a knight in the French medieval court. He hires a wizard to send him back in time a few days so he can correct an unfortunate accident. But something goes wrong and he’s sent forward, instead, to the year 2000. Thibault and his squire André (Christian Clavier) land in the Chicago museum where their furnishings are on exhibit.

USA Today pointed out that the original French movie, Les Visiteurs, brought them back to France, not the U.S., which allowed for some insightful social criticism on the progress of French civilization. But when they land in Chicago, that social angle is lost, and what’s left is mere silliness.

The visitors run into some trouble with museum security, but luckily, Thibault’s distant descendant Julia (Christina Applegate) happens to work there. She takes Thibault for her French cousin, either insane or suffering amnesia, and she agrees to put them up until things can be straightened out. Julia’s gold-digging fiancé thinks they’re after her money. Her neighbor’s gardener thinks they’re cute. Julia herself just wants to return to normalcy.


The movie is well built from a successful template. Act one introduces the protagonists, the villains, and the conflict; act two ruminates on the conflict some more; and act three wraps up all the threads. Of course, going from a template means that the movie is predictable and unoriginal, but at least it keeps the movie from dragging.

Adorning the story are a set of vivid characters and culture shock jokes. Jean Reno proves to be a very good comic straight man. He plays a nobleman who has no idea how ignoble he appears by modern standards. Julia’s boyfriend Hunter is a slick weasel of a villain, and Matthew Ross plays the thankless part with gusto. He is arrogant and mean, even when he’s being humiliated by Thibault’s peasant.

But some of the adornments are natty and torn, diminishing the overall effect. For example, the film spends too much time obsessing about modern toilets. And Clavier gives the sidekick Andre no humanity, reaching always for the cheap laugh, foregoing actual character development.

Middle de la Rue?

Just Visiting sits squarely in the middle of the road. It’s not worth recommending, but it’s not worth avoiding, either. It is funny in parts, far beyond the toilet jokes aimed at adolescents. On the other hand, it is forgettable and disposable.

My friend summed it up well when she said she was glad she saw it with me because she wouldn’t have gone otherwise. The previews sell it as silly and gross — and it is — but it’s also occasionally clever and funny.

So congratulations go to Poiré, Reno, and Clavier. They brought their movie overseas and they’ll no doubt make a profit from it, moreso than if they had released it in theaters with subtitles. But I don’t expect it will be the big hit here that it was in France. I don’t think Just Visiting will be sticking around.