Friday, November 16, 2012

Bugsy Malone Movie Review

While reading an excellent book called Fast Food Nation, a section was commenting on the large percentage of teenage workers that McDonald’s has and compared a typical work day to a scene in a movie called Bugsy Malone (1974). I’d never heard of this movie before, and the idea of an all-child cast intrigued me. I finally got hold of a copy to watch and I have to admit I was impressed.
Bugsy Malone is loosely based on gangster rivalries in Chicago from the early 1920’s to 1931 during the Prohibition Era. At Fat Sam’s speakeasy which serves sarsaparilla, there is much dancing and singing, but Crime Boss Fat Sam (John Cassisi) is worried that his rival Danny Dan (Martin Lev) will come to the speakeasy to take over. Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger) is an aspiring singer who goes to Fat Sam’s for an audition, but Sam is too distracted. On her way out, she meets smooth talking Bugsy Malone (Scott Baio) who is smitten and flirts with her. Later, Danny Dan’s men attack the place with a new weapon; rapid-fire custard-shooting “splurge guns.” Fat Sam only has cream pies to retaliate with, and can’t compete. Bugsy promises to help Blousey get to Hollywood, but the only way he is able to come up with cash is by working as Fat Sam’s hired hand. Things become more complicated as Fat Sam’s girlfriend, Tallulah (Jodie Foster), takes a shine to Bugsy, causing Blousey to become jealous and mistrusting. As Fat Sam’s empire continues to fall at the hands of Danny Dan, Bugsy enlists the aid of some down-and-out workers at the soup kitchen to take on Danny Dan and earn the needed money to help the gal of his dreams.
Bugsy Malone is easily one of the most original films I’ve seen in ages. There’s been nothing like it before, and to my knowledge, nothing like it since. Even though it’s a musical gangster movie featuring an all-child cast with a well deserved G rating, I don’t think it was intended as a kid’s movie so much as a cheerful commentary on childlike values and behavior. Prohibition isn’t prohibiting alcohol, but rather sarsaparilla sodas. In Al Capone’s day the new weapon was machine guns, in Bugsy Malone it’s custard guns; the old fashioned custard pies are useless in a one-on-one situation. The gangsters in Bugsy Malone drive “pedal cars,” 1920’s style vehicles that are powered like a bicycle; kids can’t drive cars, after all. No one dies in this movie, there’s no cursing, no one is thrown off a building; everything is full of childlike innocence. It’s a gangster drama, without any hint of badness about it.
I expect that if kids see this all-child cast they won’t think a thing of it, but as adults it’s so out of the ordinary it’s almost shocking. But it’s such a creative idea. The sets were scaled down to kid-size, the costumes were spot on for its era, and the many musical numbers had a definitive 1920’s feel to them. 13-year-old Jodie Foster was particularly impressive. She plays a hard-bitten nightclub singer who does a torch song with every bit as much skill as other women who have played similar roles. Her performance, and indeed the whole child casted film, depends a lot on the tone in which it is presented. If you put kids in these situations and direct them in the slightest of wrong ways, the movie would become offensive. But Bugsy Malone isn’t offensive, it’s cute!
Child actors don’t always do exceptionally well due to a lack of experience, but the cast in Bugsy Malone did a pretty good job. Most of the actors, apart from Jodie Foster, had never acted before. But I think that because they had nothing but other kids to act with, they did better as a whole. When kids play, it’s real. They can turn cardboard boxes into spaceships and backyards into uncharted jungles. The kids in Bugsy Malone don’t act as if the whole thing is a farce. For them it’s real, especially the indignity of a pie in the face. I think it has more insight into kids than it does into gangsters.
Bugsy Malone was a delightfully fun movie. It has fun songs, decent acting, fantastic set designs, incredibly witty dialogue, plenty of humor, and a familiar gangster story presented in a highly creative way. The pacing gets a little choppy and the songs are obviously dubbed over with adult singers, but that’s the worst I can say about it. Unlike some G-rated kid movies, Bugsy Malone isn’t sickly sweet and sugary. Still, it may not appeal to viewers who don’t appreciate the tameness of kid-friendly films. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before, and I liked it. It was fun to revel in its slapstick silliness and appreciate the film for what it was. This is worth seeing, and possibly owning if you have kids.

Here's the movie trailer for Bugsy Malone. Yes, that really is Jodie Foster.

What's your favorite kid movie? Like, a movie with predominantly kid characters? Comment below and let me know!

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