I hit adolescence right around the turn o’ the ‘80s, and it was a very strange time for kids’ movies, or at least movies that creatives thought kids would like – and after the success of the Clint Eastwood megahit Every Which Way but Loose (1978), that usually meant a film with some sort of simian featured in it. After that (plus a sequel), we were treated to Going Ape (’81), a Tony Danza starrer that featured orangutans just like Clint’s, and of course TV had BJ and the Bear (’78-’81). There are others, but let’s be clear: most films that stop cold to feature an animal aren’t worth the droppings they leave behind. This brings us to Carnival Magic (1983), one of B-movie legend Al Adamson’s final features and his first of two stabs at a family film. Leave it to Severin Kids’ line to spring it on an unsuspecting Blu-ray audience. It is something else.
“Something else” would be a smidgen of an understatement; it’s fair to say that the G-rated Carnival Magic is the most thematically adult “kids” film I’ve ever seen. Other than Alex the chimp (oh we’ll get to him, I promise), this film holds nothing more than the allure of compromised dreams and misbegotten reality. Plus, domestic violence. Grab your popcorn!
Markov the Magnificent (Don Stewart – Guiding Light) is a sad and lonely magician in a traveling circus; he is constantly at was with the jealous lion trainer Kirk (Joe Cirillo – Splash), and just hasn’t been the same since his wife died. Kirk conspires to get rid of Markov, and the carnival’s owner Stoney (Mark Weston – Shamus, and also this film’s screenwriter) agrees. Enter carnie and Stoney’s adopted daughter Ellen (Jennifer Houlton – The Doctors), who discovers that Markov has a talking chimpanzee, Alex, and convinces Stoney to keep Markov on and incorporate Alex into the act. Once again the carnival is back on top, but a greedy scientist teams up with Kirk to get rid of Markov and Alex. Will they succeed? Hijinks ensue!
Hijinks, you say? Well, the back half of Carnival Magic is loaded with them: Alex steals a car with a buxom blonde in the backseat and mostly mumbles “hmm, yeah, sure” whenever he speaks. As for Markov, when he isn’t moping around grieving the loss of his wife, he’s busy performing actual telepathy and levitation and as a bonus, acting as the carnival’s de facto guru/proprietor of first draft Hallmark card wisdom. Meanwhile Ellen the eternal tomboy, in her baggy t-shirts and ball caps, learns to find the young woman blossoming inside when she falls in love with the carnival’s PR guy. Dresses and makeup for her from now on, with the lesson being that it really is what’s on the outside that counts. Oh, and Kirk is an alcoholic who beats his lady every chance he gets.
Okay, none of it really could be considered hijinks (well maybe Alex’s carjacking scene), but that’s the feeling it’s supposed to relay to youngsters watching for the first time. If there were any. Carnival Magic played for a couple weeks and then completely disappeared from the marketplace for nearly 30 years – and it’s easy to see why; what kid on earth would like this?
As it turns out, it was made by adults who grew up with kids’ movies, but had no understanding of them. The only lesson taught applies to Markov and his eventual romance with Kate, played by Adamson’s wife and frequent muse, Regina Carrol. While ‘it’s never too late to find happiness’ is a good message, an 8 year old is going to have a helluva time applying it to their life. However, he or she will know what an abusive partner really looks like.
But hey, what about the chimp? That must be good for some chuckles, yes? Ironically, sure; as I’ve said, monosyllabic responses are mostly what you get, agreeances to simple questions asked. Would the film work better if Alex was given more to do and say and the grownups took a backseat? Of course. Who else is there for children to relate to?
What I’m discovering as I dive (sink?) further into the Adamsonverse is this: every film I’ve watched so far has surprised me. In good ways, yes; I’m no longer at a tender age, and there is something to be said for his cockeyed visions that I appreciate now more than I ever could.
A Boon To Science - A Critical Appreciation by Zack Carlson & Lars Nilsen
Audio Commentary with Producer Elvin Feltner
Outtakes, TV Spot, and Trailer
Keeping in line with Severin’s recent penchant for giving Adamson’s fans more than they asked for, you also get Lost (1983), another kids’ flick and Adamson’s final completed project before retiring to the greener pastures of real estate. I haven’t seen Lost yet, but if it’s in a similar vein I’m all in. The chat between Carlson & Nilsen is light and informative, and the commentary with Feltner gets down to the nuts and bolts of the operation. A lot is crammed onto this disc, and Carnival Magic takes you right to the crack of the ‘80s with a fine print and decent audio. (It isn’t like this made the rounds for decades; this film was a definite warehouse widow.)
Even if one puts aside the notion that it was intended for family audiences, Carnival Magic is a strange little ride. Is it appropriate for children? I don’t know. Asking if it’s appropriate for anyone would be a better question. (You already know my answer.)
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4/5