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Looking Back: Harry and the Hendersons (1987)

In the late 1980’s, Steven Spielberg, the most successful filmmaker of all time, was moving past his “Peter Pan” stage. While helming more adult minded works like “The Color Purple” and “Empire of the Sun,” Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment hired clusters of The Next Spielberg to direct films that he would develop and produce. Although Spielberg was not the director of “Back to the Future,” “Young Sherlock Holmes” or “The Money Pit” (to name a few), they sure felt like they were ghost directed by the man who gave us “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” The Spielberg formula was firmly in place for all of those films: characters who must grow up, scenarios right of Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” TV series, a cast of likable, all-American actors playing characters usually in suburban settings, and state of the art special effects wizardry. For the most part, these vehicles work, in spite of their familiarity. In some cases, like “Back to the Future” and, later on, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” the films are so extraordinary, they succeed as stand-alone classics and bring merited attention to the director (in those cases, Robert Zemeckis) than the more famous executive producer. Then, you have “Harry and the Hendersons,” in which William Dear, director of the best-forgotten “Amazing Stories” episode, “Mummy Daddy,” was given an opportunity to helm his first big motion picture for Amblin Entertainment.

“Harry and the Hendersons” stars John Lithgow as George Henderson, a gun-toting, red meat-loving, all-American Dad who takes his wife (the always wonderful Melinda Dillon) and two children (played by “Amazing Stories” veteran Joshua Ruddy and Margaret Langrick) on a camping/hunting trip. On the way home, George hits Sasquatch with his car. They take the massive, unconscious creature home and consider exploiting it for profit. When Sasquatch awakens, he tears the house apart and is initially terrifying, but reveals a tender soul. The Hendersons name him “Harry” and consider keeping him as a part of the family.

Dear’s film presents a question that children of Steven Spielberg’s 80’s Cinema may have always wondered: what if there had been a Dad in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial”? Whereas “E.T.,” one of Spielberg’s undisputed masterpieces, centers on a lonely boy raised by his single mother, “Harry and the Hendersons” is very much a father/son story. We learn that George was bullied by his father (played with gusto by M. Emmett Walsh) into becoming a gun nut and working alongside his Dad at the Henderson & Son gun shop, where they sell ammo to blood crazed hunters. George’s Dad is a real piece of work, belittling George for his real love of being an artist and allowing his co-workers to openly mock George. Had this subplot gone anywhere and resolved itself, it might have worked. Instead, Walsh’s character gets dropped in the third act and all of his scenes feel like mean spirited throwaways. Far better are the scenes with Lithgow and Ruddy, as they both recognize the newly discovered soft side they both express for Harry.

Lithgow is too good for the role of George Henderson, which cries out for someone like Tony Danza or James Belushi. Yet, Lithgow typically gives it all he’s got. A scene late in the film, where George pretends to be angry at Harry in order to save his life, is surprisingly heartbreaking, due in large part to how committed Lithgow’s performance is.

Although completely silly and sappier than a maple tree, “Harry and the Hendersons” is consistently funny whenever the focus is on the family trying to domesticate Bigfoot. The movie suffers whenever attention shifts to characters outside of the house.

It’s good to know that David Suchet later went on to become a great Hercule Poirot. Here, playing the villainous hunter Jacques Lafleur, I felt deeply embarrassed for him. Lafleur is a dastardly, literally stinky French Bigfoot hunter. The only other foreign character of note is a Chinese gardener whose introductory line is, “My name is Kim LEE, not KIM CHEE!” This movie is so xenophobic, I wondered if Mr. Futterman from “Gremlins” had a crack at the screenplay.

In addition to the xenophobia, the other quality that makes this a PG-rated 80’s family comedy is loads of mild profanity. Otherwise, this still works great for older kids but is so ooey-gooey cutesy, only nostalgia will lubricate this for viewing experience for grownups.

Harry is played by Kevin Peter Hall, who portrayed the “Predator” the same year. The late Hall embodies the creature with wonder and stunning mobility. While this a tour de force for Lithgow (as is any movie with Lithgow in it), Harry is the real star and he’s still an amazing, expressive and stunningly lifelike movie monster. Yet, unlike the let’s-be-friends pact Elliot had with E.T., Harry comes with a catch. In addition to thoroughly trashing the Henderson’s home, Harry requires his hosts to become anti-gun, pet-friendly, vegetarian pacifists. If you want Harry to share your home, you must be the equivalent of Al Gore. Man, that Harry comes with a lot of baggage.

Dear’s film follows the “E.T” narrative checklist scene-for-scene, reprising story twists and visuals from that movie but with a furry, lumbering Bigfoot instead of Carlo Rambaldi’s squishy little alien. The best of the borrowed visuals is of Harry looking at the distant wilderness, bordered off from highways that prevent his homecoming. On the other hand, there’s the moment where someone kicks Harry in the groin (yes, this came out the same summer as “The Monster Squad,” which also sports an infamous, similar moment). It’s the low point of the movie. If you’re going to spend nearly two hours building up the mystique, gentle beauty and warm-hearted nature of a truly special creature, don’t have someone kick him in the balls for a cheap laugh!

The end credits feature something even more rare than a Bigfoot sighting: a bad Joe Cocker song. If you sit through the end credits to watch the still-cool rotoscopic animation, make sure you hit the MUTE button. Listening to Cocker’s “Love Lives On” is like, well, being Bigfoot and getting kicked in the balls.

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