Thursday, October 21, 2010

THE QUEST (1986)

This Charter Entertainment release may be geared toward family audiences, but to any one of us who, as children, rode our bikes into the wild overgrowth behind our towns to investigate urban myths, this film will stoke a warm grin. In spite of flaws, "The Quest" does capture the wholesome spirit of and entrance into puberty, where we experience our first taste of independence, but haven’t quite abused it enough to diminish our innocence. There’s still wonder, curiosity, the suspicion that there might be something truly strange out there, waiting to grab us, and there is no disbelief to suspend.

I was introduced to this Aussie export via the Disney Channel as a kid. After seeing the ads, which featured "E.T.'s" Henry Thomas skulking around the outback on the heels of some unidentified aquatic creature, I bought a blank tape and sat in front of the VCR on premier night with my fingers on “record” and “play.” After that, "The Quest" became a preferred soundtrack for bed time for a lengthy period. It may seem odd that I’d select such a morbid topic to nod off to, but I’d spent the bulk of my young life forcing myself to sleep while listening to domestic squabbling, gang fights, and sirens. By contrast, anything of a fantastic nature was a welcome escape. Plus, at one point kids were encouraged to use their imagination to illustrate what might be lingering in the dark spaces under their beds and in their closets. Kids used to be fascinated by the possibility of monsters, ghosts, and aliens. These days, the kid who's in love with Frankenstein and the Wolf Man is considered unsophisticated. The modern child has been reprogrammed to become a more practical creature, surpassing the period of imagination, and passing directly into the realm of responsibility. Kids are pushed to grow too fast now, and concepts of play, which are integral with respect to healthy growth and development, have been replaced with concerns of stranger danger. Kids these days are far too paranoid to have fun. They don't take risks like they used to. Sometimes safe sucks, and this is a film that definitely celebrates an inquisitive spirit that our youth have abandoned. The bare bones of the story told here emphasizes the importance of exploration and simple curiosity. Something like this would never get made today, for fear that the influence would send kids diving to the bottom of their local watering hole with fish bowls on their heads. Sure, a few kids may drown in the process, but those would be acceptable losses when you consider what good, socially, comes from encouraging the latest generation to question all authority.

I’m always reluctant to revisit childhood favorites. Years later, the adult me is usually disappointed in the film and I wind up losing respect for my childhood self. This particular movie has faired a little better than most, though. While I sat through this film the other day, I continually imagined that if I had a child during this particular season, that I would definitely put them in front of this film, and hope I’d done a decent enough job as a parent that they’d appreciate something like this. I was sitting through much worse than this at a young age, but all the decapitation and bare breasts still didn’t diminish my appreciation for the concept. After all, it was the sort of adventure I was searching for after school every day. I can safely recommend this to parents looking for something on the spookier side for their children around Halloween. There may be an occasional “brown word,” but otherwise, you can feel at ease while watching this with your kids.

The film makes the most of its scenery, focusing so frequently on wild life and wind blown foliage that I forgot this was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, the man behind Ozploitation classic "Dead End Drive-In." The perspective seems so nature-obsessive that one would assume the director was completely alien to the country’s landscapes. Other than that, my embittered perspective still acknowledges that this is an effectively atmospheric production.

Equal parts Huck Finn and Hardy Boy, Cody (Thomas) is an American orphan adapting to life in a rural Australian town after his father’s best friend, Gaza (Tony Barry), has been awarded custody. Gaza, an eccentric mechanic, relates to the boy’s ingenuity, and takes a hands-off approach while rearing the boy, which leads to mechanically inclined misadventures which haven’t done much to endear Cody to the town elders.

One day, while exploring the wilds, Cody, along with friends Wendy and Jane, experience a disruption in the water, which leads to the discovery of a body. Town speculation runs wild as to what might have happened to the poor bloke out at the pond known as Devil’s Knobb, but only Cody seems interested in delving deeper. Despite the fact that his interests ruffle town folk feathers, our protagonist pursues the mystery and soon uncovers the truth behind the mysterious Aboriginal myth known as the Donkagine.

I couldn’t find a trailer, but you can check out the whole film on YouTube, in multiple parts, starting here:

The adult in me acknowledges that most of the performances are likable to great, and it’s well-shot, but there are a few problems. This film could have benefited tremendously by losing twenty minutes of utterly pointless bullshit. For instance, Cody takes a downstream excursion to visit the legendary Charlie Pride, an aborigines man who is closely tied to magic. The whole thing turns out to be a beautifully shot speed bump. We learn nothing about the Donkagine or anything else for that matter. It's a complete waste of time that doesn't do anything other than disrupt the story. But once we get past all that crap, it's smooth sailing toward a satisfying payoff. Unfortunately, the film doesn't end when it should, and we're treated to a final scene that almost ruins the whole movie.

SPOILER ahead for those who give a shit.

Basically, Cody winds up discovering that the Donkagine is actually an abandoned mining crane, and the granite at the Pond’s floor secretes a steady flow of oxygen, which creates an air pocket that sends the weed-covered machinery rearing toward the surface for several moments a day to create the illusion of a water beast. Cody's discovery is a triumph of the analytical, scientific mind over the hysteria of superstition. The final scene almost seems placed in the interest of political correctness, as aboriginal Charlie Pride appears over Devil’s Knobb and uses his black man’s magic to send all the surrounding man-made garbage to the murky depths of the pond. They couldn’t just let the story sit as a moral tale about questioning out-dated authority or putting your faith in logic and science. Instead, they had to tack some apologist epilogue onto the end, so no one could possibly extract the message that savages have ridiculous beliefs. It's totally fucking stupid. Other than that, though, "The Quest" is a useful family-safe thriller in the vein of stuff like "The Explorers" and "Anna to the Infinite Power."

Oh yeah, the Charter release also includes a trailer for the Raimi/Coen brothers collaboration, "Crimewave," which Bruce Campbell has lamented as his worst film to date. Not sure if he said that before or after “The Man with the Screaming Brain,” though.

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