Harry and the Hendersons (DVD)

The average American family just got a little…bigger.

Meet George Henderson (John Lithgow, Third Rock from the Sun). He works at his father’s sporting goods store, he hopes to become a successful artist someday, and he loves the outdoors. After a weekend camping trip in the middle of nowhere with his wife Nancy (Melinda Dillon, A Christmas Story), his daughter Sarah (Margaret Langrick, Frankenstein: The College Years), and his son Ernie (Joshua Rudoy, Flatliners), George drives back home to Seattle.

On this drive, George’s car hits a large animal. At first, the Hendersons think it’s a bear, or maybe a gorilla, but they soon learn that it’s the one and only Bigfoot. Thinking the creature is dead, George feels this is a major scientific discovery, and takes the beast home with him. The family’s in for a shock, though, because Bigfoot is not only still alive, but exploring and trashing the inside of the Henderson house.

Although terrified at first, the Hendersons quickly discover that the Bigfoot is a kind, gentle soul. They name him Harry, and before long, he’s like a member of the family. But as a ruthless Bigfoot hunter (David Suchet, Poirot) tracks Harry to his new home, the Hendersons have to decide where Harry belongs: back in the woods, or hidden away with them in a strange new world of suburbia?

Harry and the Hendersons hits all the points needed for one of these kid-based ’80s fantasy flicks. It has abundant moments of comedy, plenty of scenes intended to be heartwarming, and a villain that’s menacing without being too scary. As amusing and charming as this movie is, the final result has just enough flaws to elevate it from “cute” status to “cherished classic” status.

For one thing, the fun part of the movie—the part everyone remembers and looks forward to seeing—is the whole idea of Bigfoot living with a normal family in a normal house. But surprisingly, there’s very little of this element in the movie. Just as we’re getting used to Harry living with the Hendersons and all the absurdities that come with it, suddenly Harry and the family are separated. Most of the middle part of the film has Harry lost and alone, wandering among civilization, trying to figure humans out while also hoping to avoid capture. During all this, the family frets and worries about Harry, concerned for his safety as they look for him. This time apart reinforces how much the Hendersons have come to care about Harry, and how much Harry needs them. The problem is that it comes too early in the film. At that point, we haven’t had enough interaction between them to believe that their friendships have fully developed. This separation should have happened later in the film, and been tightened to help build momentum as the story heads to its big finale. Once Harry and George are reunited, then they could have headed off right into the big chase and the film’s climax. The way it is now, it’s as if the story wanders aimlessly for a while—not unlike Harry.

Also curious is the filmmakers’ decision to make George and Harry’s friendship the heart of the film, instead of Harry and the two kids. In a film made with a children’s audience in mind, it’s odd that the dad character is the one with the most screen time. The kids are supporting players, and one-note characters at that. Ernie thinks Harry is cool. That’s pretty much all we know about him. Why not have Ernie be the one who teaches Harry to sit instead of George? Sarah dislikes Harry after Harry eats her 15th birthday corsage during his initial rampage through the house. She also dislikes him because she thinks he smells bad. So she has two character traits. If the kids had been used more in the story, perhaps the Hendersons would have felt more like a family. Instead, the plot feels more like Harry and George than it does Harry and the Hendersons.

But nitpicking the film like this is really not doing it justice. This is an amusing little comedy, and that’s all it ever set out to be. Although there are quite a few scenes designed to bring on tears from sentimental viewers, Harry and the Hendersons is best viewed as a straightforward comedy. Lithgow plays George as a goof, and, as all Third Rock fans can tell you, he’s good at goofy. Also notice, during Harry’s trashing of the Henderson home, how the family keeps pausing to make little quips. They’re so busy with the one-liners that it takes them an incredibly long time before someone thinks to call 911. I can almost see them casting Chevy Chase and calling this thing Bigfoot Vacation.

For other positive notes, screen legend Don Ameche (Things Change) brings his usual charm to his role as a Bigfoot researcher, and Lainie Kazan (My Favorite Year) is appropriately obnoxious as a nosy next-door neighbor. Best of all, though, is six-foot nine-inch Kevin Peter Hall (who also played the title character in Predator) as Harry, with much assistance from makeup and special effects whiz Rick Baker (Videodrome). Hall’s physicality sells Harry’s larger-than-life movements, and his eyes, the only “real” part of him that can be seen through Baker’s prosthetics, are remarkably expressive. There’s never any doubt as to when Harry is happy, sad, worried, etc., thanks mostly to Hall’s eye-acting. Baker and his team do their part too, ensuring that Harry’s face has plenty of movement and expression.

Anyone who enjoys hunting will probably get ticked off by this movie. It takes a strict “guns are bad, and shooting animals with guns is even worse” stand. Any hunters reading this no doubt have prepared statements at hand describing how numerous laws are in place to keep the hunted animals from going extinct and how gun safety is of the utmost importance (and no, I’m not a hunter).

For this DVD, Universal has created a real treat for those who love this movie. The picture can come across as slightly soft or hazy at times, especially during the outdoor scenes, but this isn’t serious enough to keep anyone from enjoying the film. The picture quality is great elsewhere, with rich black levels and nice colors. The 5.1 sound is a winner. During the forest scenes, sounds of birds and whatnot can be heard from all five speakers, offering a nice “you are there” feel.

Kicking off the many extras is a commentary by director and co-writer William Dear (Angels in the Outfield). He provides nonstop information about making the film, and he’s clearly very fond of the film. The deleted scenes are another highlight, providing some funny character moments for the characters. In the “Finding the Missing Link” featurette, Dear and Baker talk about the making of the film, with special attention paid to creating Harry’s distinctive look and bringing him to life on the big screen. The “Making of” featurette is an ’80s TV special made to promote the movie. There’s not a lot of substance to this one, but the nostalgia factor more than makes up for it. The “Newswrap” appears to be the film’s original electronic press kit, and it repeats almost all of the interviews and footage from the TV special. Overall, it’s great to see a film like this get so much love and attention in the way of extras.

Okay, so this is hardly the perfect movie, but it’s tons of fun. That makes up for a lot. Casual viewers might not get much replay value from it, but ’80s nostalgia buffs will be thrilled to see it released with this excellent DVD presentation.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m heading off to the woods this weekend to shoot Bigfoot…with my camera! (Geez, what’d you think I was going to say?)

The Verdict

Rrrraaaarrgh!!! (Translation: Not guilty)

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