" I can safely say at this point that we are lost. "
— Heather Donahue, The Blair Witch Project

MRQE Top Critic

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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My in-laws just forwarded me a humor e-mail that contained this anecdote: A teacher, observing her kindergarteners while they were drawing, asked one student about her picture. “I’m drawing God,” the girl said. “But no one knows what God looks like,” the teacher replied. “They will in a minute,” the girl said.

This is the kind of beguiling certainty the kids in The Last Mimzy exhibit when they are given new “toys” that appear to be from another place and time entirely. Seattleites Noah (Chris O’Neil, who looks like a double for Elliott in E.T.) and his younger sister Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn) have some fun and attempt to solve some big problems as a result of their interactions with a cute stuffed rabbit, a crystalline slab, and a few more unusual objects disgorged by a strange box they find at the beach. The story is not only about what the kids learn from their new “toys” but also about how they and the others around them respond to new information.

Jabberwocky, or How to Save the World

The Last Mimzy gets its title from the Lewis Carroll poem “Jabberwocky,” in the children’s classic story, Through the Looking Glass. In the film, the children, with the help of their otherworldly playthings, learn that the rhyme contains a message sent from the future. Emma’s new rabbit tells her that she and her brother can use this information to solve problems that will plague humankind in the future. The film posits some fascinating questions: What if some of what we consider the world’s great artworks contain information that we could employ to make the world a better place? Why are children so willing to observe and respond to new ideas and instructions whereas adults are slow to heed signs and signals from the universe? And what if children, with their flexible, growing brains, could learn to accomplish things that their hard-noggined parents could not?

In the original science fiction short story, Mimsy Were the Borogoves (written by Henry Kuttner under the pseudonym Lewis Padgett and published in 1943), psychology is the scary monster: the expert psychologist in the original story frightens the children’s conservative parents by telling them that their children’s genius in being able to understand and communicate using a new system of logic may be a form of “madness.” In the film’s updated and extended version of the story, the parents also feel threatened by things beyond their understanding (e.g., the “toys,” their children’s newfound genius) but the parents’ rigidity itself is also a threat.

Fear and Loathing in Seattle

I expected more jingoistic, fearful scenarios in the original WWII-era short story, but instead found these more prevalent in the present-day film version. In the most frightening and confusing scene (especially for youngsters), for example, the family’s home is forcibly invaded by helmeted police after the Homeland Security Department is called in to investigate a power surge that takes out power to millions one night when Noah and Emma are hard at work with their futuristic toys.

When the avuncular-but-tough head of Homeland Security, played by Michael Clarke Duncan, assures Noah’s family that he and his team can “always” pinpoint the origin of an outage, Noah draws out his incredulous yet terrified reply — “You c-a-a-a-n?” — and I felt I was witnessing a scary yet sweetly innocent moment in his life.

Flattened Stanleys

Watching the first half hour of The Last Mimzy, I could not help becoming offended anew by the way rich people in American movies are shown as typical. With the family’s professional dad (Timothy Hutton) and stay-at-home mom (Joely Richardson), Craftsman-style house with a view overlooking the city, nice cars and new gadgets, I found that their upper-middle class sheen kept flattening them, making them a kind of shorthand for people. In a film that purports to be about solving the world’s future problems, it strikes me as a wee bit hypocritical to make shining examples of the largest consumers of the world’s resources. This class-based idealization of characters struck me once again as a missed opportunity, especially for someone as influential as this film’s director, Bob Shaye (who, incidentally or otherwise, is co-CEO of New Line Cinema, distributor of this film).

Yet the cast and the screenwriters, Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost) and Toby Emmerling (Frequency), imbue their characters with enough quirks and complexities to win my heart. One of Noah and Emma’s helpers is Noah’s science teacher, Larry White (the perfectly cast Rainn Wilson), who is gobsmacked when he finds Noah’s notebook doodlings of mandalas that match the ones that have been appearing in his dreams since he visited Tibet with his fiancee. This Seattle couple is portrayed far more vividly than the central family: the couple share a funky little apartment with a mattress on the floor; he wears Pink Floyd t-shirts and a dangly earring when he teaches and takes genuine interest in passing knowledge and wisdom onto his students; his fiancee Naomi meditates, reads palms, and still hasn’t quite let go of Larry’s failure to buy a lottery ticket when he saw the six winning numbers in a dream a while back – yet she never comes across as ditzy.

And Noah and Emma aren’t the sitcom-cute cutouts spewing wiseacre remarks like we see in so many films these days, but rather are complex enough that, by the end, we truly want to know how things work out for them.

An Unlikely About-Face

The film’s least credible moment follows the kids’ final struggle to complete their world-saving task: after Mr. Head of Homeland Security has seen things he can’t explain or understand, he does a complete 180-degree turn in a single, brief speech in which he apologizes and asks whether there’s anything he can do for the family he has until now treated as terrorists. It’s a quibble, but this sudden change of mind seems unlikely after such a buildup of the contrast between kids’ flexible minds and adults’ inflexible ones, brain scans and all.

Despite its special effects and far-flung ideas about Tibetan mandalas and nursery rhymes encoded with instructions for building bridges to the future, The Last Mimzy continually brings the drama and humor back to familiar territory. When Emma’s dad asks her to pass the sugar, the crabby girl levitates the sugar granules up out of the bowl in a cloud and dumps them all onto his cereal. The dad mutters, “I am so far out of my league here,” and we feel for both of them.

Mimzy Phone Home

Much of the territory covered by The Last Mimzy is familiar: Steven Spielberg trod this path years ago in E.T., which contrasted children’s trust with adults’ fears surrounding close encounters of unfamiliar kinds. By the time the Feds in this story lock Noah, Emma, and their parents in a laboratory and take the children’s toys so they can “slice and scan” them, I felt the same anxiety and sorrow as I did when Elliott’s extraterrestrial friend was discovered, the boy’s house was sealed, and his ailing alien friend was isolated for the convenience of the scientists. Although both films left me with similar ideas to consider long after the film ended, when I first saw E.T., I felt shamelessly manipulated by both the story and score in a way I never felt watching The Last Mimzy.

By the film’s dramatic conclusion, I had become so engrossed in the children’s dilemmas that I chuckle now about the way I gasped and clutched at my armrests. (If she wasn’t equally engrossed herself, perhaps the major metropolitan newspaper’s film critic sitting next to me wondered whether I’d ever before seen a children’s adventure story in a theater.) The excellent story, dialogue, and casting elevate The Last Mimzy far above its clichés and leave you with more to consider long after the screen goes dark.