Tuesday, June 22, 2010
No matter how frequently it happens, I’m always a bit surprised to see the critical thrashing taken by some of my favorite childhood movies. As a kid, my friends and I were convinced movies like Dunston Checks In was among the cinematic creme de la creme. A quick trip to aggregate ratings site Rottens Tomatoes reveals a different picture entirely; among the most positive comments is one claiming the film’s only redeeming quality is that it may possibly keep your children quiet and complacent for ninety minutes. Ouch.
As a general rule, puppets and animals are usually fail-safe stock characters with which to cast your children’s film. Not only do they come significantly cheaper than big name stars, their novelty casts a sort of unbreakable spell over impressionable children. While their accompanying adults may have been beating themselves over their heads with their own shoes to get through an hour and a half of monkey debauchery, children were gleefully taken in by the cuteness of cinema critters.
Dunston Checks In follows the adorable animal character formula pretty closely, though it does offer the semi-subverted trope twist of putting the animal protagonist on the side of the bad guys. Dunston is a cute orangutan, sure, but he ultimately is an accessory in the heist of some major jewels. I’m not sure what sort of criminal charges could be pressed against a monkey, but Dunston makes a good case for convicting simians.
Truthfully, the movie could be titled “random orangutan antics haphazardly arranged around a flimsy plot.” Dunston Checks In seems determined to insert its title monkey character into as many zany situations as possible, with little attention paid to common sense or anything related to real life situations. Of course, this is a children’s movie we’re talking about here, so that set up is not necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, this simplified plot model mash-up of Dunston’s gags and practical jokes is far more adept at holding children’s attention than a sensible linear plot could ever be.
Dunston Checks In focuses on upscale hotel owner Robert Grant (Jason Alexander), a widower with two young sons. Though the hotel is already rated at five stars, Grant finds out a six-star rating may soon be available. Determined to achieve the higher status, he sets out to vie for this new level of luxury validation.
In a classic case of 90s comedy misunderstanding, mysterious guest Lord Rutledge (Rupert Everett) is mistaken for the hotel inspector. Grant and Co. see Rutledge’s careful inspection of the hotel interior and assume him to be the incognito inspector, though in reality he is surveying the scene for a heist. I smell the onset of some hilarious hijinks.
Rutledge, for no better reason than to set up the shaky plot of a children’s movie, has an orangutan in tow who assists in carrying out his thievery missions. Dunston’s owner is less than hospitable to his monkey companion, leading the orangutan to flee to the hotel ducts and end up in the company of Grant’s sons Kyle and Brian. In turn, the boys try their best to convince the hotel staff about the ape on the premises, but Dunston’s impressive stealth makes him nearly invisible to the other hotel occupants.
As you can imagine, hilarity ensues--at least from a child’s perspective. An additional antagonist is stirred into the pot when Grant hires an exterminator (Paul Reubens) to take care of the hotel’s monkey problem. The film offers us a slew of further humorous misunderstandings, ultimately culminating in some family-friendly semi-schmaltzy but generally sweet sentimentality.
Dunston Checks In isn’t high art by any means, but many children of the 90s will still probably tune in for the nostalgia value when the movie is on TV. Like most family comedies, the humor serves to delight the easily amused children while hopefully not offending any of the parents in attendance. Even as an adult, though, there’s something sort of charming about a major animal character--no matter what he does, it’s sort of cute and funny. The story would never have made it past script screeners if Dunston was a person, but as an orangutan he’s got just about enough cuteness capital to win us over.