My Favorite Martian (United States, 1999)
The most inventive moment in My Favorite Martian comes during the opening sequence. A robot Mars probe is shown slowly picking its way across the barren surface of the Red Planet. When its power supply finally gives out and it grinds to a halt, the camera pans up to reveal what the probe just missed seeing: a huge, futuristic city. Following that admittedly clever introduction, the movie is pretty much what you might expect from a big-screen adaptation of a once-popular '60s TV series: good-natured, appealing, and sophomoric. The saving grace, at least for those who recall the television show, is that series star Ray Walston has been given a more substantial role than the obligatory cameo. (His co-star, Bill Bixby, is dead, and therefore did not have to be worked into the proceedings.)
Despite using a host of special effects, the basic storyline of My Favorite Martian remains true to the original premise. Tim O'Hara (Jeff Daniels) is a struggling TV news producer who stumbles onto a story of cosmic proportions when he sees a spaceship crash-land. Soon, the Martian inhabitant of the flying saucer (Christopher Lloyd) has moved into Tim's house and is pretending to be his Uncle Martin. Complications ensue when a ferocious female reporter, Brace Channing (Elizabeth Hurley), gets wind of the story and starts investigating. Meanwhile, a group of SETI operatives, led by Dr. E. Coleye (Wallace Shawn) and the mysterious Armitan (Walston), are also in on the search. A little romance is provided when the Martian ignites a spark between Tim and his camera girl, Lizzie (Daryl Hannah), and some suspense results when Martin announces that if he can't repair his spaceship within a specific time window, it will self-destruct and take Earth out in the process.
Unsurprisingly, My Favorite Martian goes for the funny bone, and most of its gags lack sophistication. There are the mandatory flatulence jokes and toilet humor, accompanied by a wide variety of physical comedy. The zaniness will appeal more to youngsters than to their parents, but there are instances when adults will find things to laugh at. Overall, however, most of My Favorite Martian seems obligatory rather than inspired.
There's nothing restrained about Christopher Lloyd's interpretation of Martin. The actor pulls out all the stops, contorting his face into odd expressions and allowing his body to snap around like a rubber band. At times, he's like an older, grizzled Jim Carrey. Despite Lloyd's flamboyance, he is frequently upstaged by a special effect. Zoot, Martin's living space suit, is like a speaking, live-action version of Aladdin's flying carpet. Character actor Wallace Shawn (depending on your movie tastes, he's either best known for My Dinner with Andre or Clueless) has his share of silly moments, although his antics don't match Lloyd's. Elizabeth Hurley, once again trying her hand at comedy (in the wake of her success in Austin Powers), is effectively over-the-top. Jeff Daniels does what he's best at by playing the bland straight man, and Daryl Hannah tries her best to remain in the background.
On a technical level, the special effects in My Favorite Martian (and there are a lot of them, ranging from the early scene of the Martian city to the appearance of a Men in Black-type alien monster near the end) are accomplished, but they seem artificial. Maybe it's because audiences are becoming accustomed to this sort of computer-generated wizardry, but most of the effects look false. They fail to blend in seamlessly with their settings, and, as a result, we have trouble accepting them. Even in an outrageous comedy like this one, the viewer has believe the film's vision of reality for the medium to work its unique magic.
Director Donald Petrie, who knows a few things about comedy (he directed Grumpy Old Men), keeps My Favorite Martian moving, although there's quite a bit of material that could have been cut out (like a comic car chase scene that's neither funny nor exciting). The film works reasonably well as family fare, although, as with most Disney live-action features, the lack of originality is a detriment (once, again the Magic Kingdom has gone with a regurgitation). This is entertainment of the lightest, most inconsequential sort.
My Favorite Martian (United States, 1999)
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Christopher Lloyd, Elizabeth Hurley, Daryl Hannah, Wallace Shawn, Ray Walston, Michael Lerner, Christine Ebersole
Screenplay: Sherri Stoner & Deanna Oliver
Cinematography: Thomas Ackerman
Music: John Debney
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
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