Here’s another installment featuring Joe Dante’s reviews from his stint as a critic for Film Bulletin circa 1969-1974. Our thanks to Video Watchdog and Tim Lucas for his editorial embellishments!
Modest, lively juvenile fantasy‑with‑music from the TV series combines live actors and life‑sized puppet characters in broad slapstick. OK for matinee and family trade. Rating: G.
Economically expanded from Sid and Marty Krofft’s Saturday morning NBC‑TV kiddie show, Pufnstuf is lively and flashy enough to hold the attention of the kids for whom it was designed, although the fantasy has a plastic aura which prevents it from attaining a much higher level than that of cardboard whimsy. A smart merchandising deal with TV sponsor Kellogg, a ready‑made audience, and its G‑rated comic nature will enable the Universal release to score in family situations and kiddie matinees, though it definitely requires a solid supporting feature for evening bookings. The format is an Alice in Wonderland concoction with the surface aspects of a hallucinogenic drug allegory. After a naturalistic opening in which he is kicked out of his school band, 17 year‑old Jack Wild (who makes an oddly convincing 12 year-old) is taken on a “trip” by a talking boat to a stylized, seemingly one‑dimensional land called Living Island, which is populated by a grotesque array of live inanimate objects and life‑sized puppet creatures so bizarre that only their gregarious slapstick antics keep the film from taking on a decidedly horrific tone.
There are a few bright lines for the parents in the slight script by John Fenton Murray and producer Si Rose, which has resident villainess Witchiepoo trying to steal Freddie (Wild’s talking flute) so she can impress her confederates at the Witches’ Convention. Wild and his friends, led by mayor H. R. Pufnstuf (who is supposed to be some sort of dragon, but looks more like a giant pumpkin), use various ruses to thwart her plans and end up humiliating her at the convention. At the end, Wild seems quite content to remain on Living Island forever, with no thought of going home. Optical special effects work is held to a surprising minimum, and most of the visual tricks involve vaselined lenses, odd camera angles and tricky cutting. TV director Hollingsworth Morse depends solely on the visual appeal of the characters and (limited) sets to carry the film.
The good guys are, traditionally, a rather dull lot, but the technical look and humor of the piece improves greatly inside the witch’s castle, where Martha Raye makes the best impression, doing wonders with expert timing and expressive make‑up in the underwritten role of Boss Witch. Billie Hayes cackles, screeches and rolls her eyes in broadly conventional style as Witchiepoo, but comes off second best to her comic foil henchmen, a buzzard, a fuzzy spider and a blind bat who flies into walls. The Krofft troupe inside the costumes is animated enough, though the voices (some of which are not the same as those used on TV) and impressions of old movie stars are overdone. One of Pufnstuf‘s most appealing facets is that it resisted the temptation to string together three TV episodes and pass the resultant hodgepodge off as a feature film.
1970. Universal (A Sid and Marty Krofft Production). Technicolor. 94 minutes. Jack Wild, Billie Hayes, Martha Raye, Mama Cass [Elliot]. Produced by Si Rose. Directed by Hollingsworth Morse.
Pufnstuf was released on VHS by Universal Home Entertainment in 2000, priced at $14.98; it is still in print. Individual series episodes have also been available for some time, initially from Embassy Home Entertainment. A four-tape collection of 17 series episodes, H.R. PUFNSTUF—THE ULTIMATE BOX SET, was recently issued by Rhino Video. – TM