Old Frenemies

20 Years Ago, One Bizarre Kids' Movie Pull Off A Shameless Bait-And-Switch

Do you remember Kangaroo Jack? Are you sure?

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LONDON - MAY 8: American actor Jerry O'Connell attends the premiere of the film"Kangaroo Jack" at Wa...
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How do you turn a raunchy comedy about a dead kangaroo into a kids' movie? The answer to that unlikely question produced one of the strangest children’s films of all time. Twenty years ago, on January 17, 2003, Kangaroo Jack was hit with horrible reviews and became the opposite of a beloved children’s movie. This strange fate is probably because it never was supposed to be a kid’s movie at all.

Produced by Hollywood power broker Jerry Bruckheimer, Kangaroo Jack had a very big problem. Bruckheimer had paid a fortune for a broad comedy pitch for an R-rated comedy called Down and Under about a pair of American losers in Australia who put a jacket on a seemingly dead kangaroo as a gag and then watch in horror as the extremely non-dead kangaroo hops away with fifty thousand dollars worth of mob money in the jacket pocket. The Top Gun producer then paid a battery of big-name screenwriters like the Farrelly Brothers, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Splash, Parenthood), Gary Ross (Dave, Pleasantville), and E. Max Frye (Something Wild, Foxcatcher) to punch up the script.

It didn’t work. Bruckheimer realized that he had a loser on his hands. Test audiences hated the film but there was an element of it that they liked. Everybody dug the kangaroo that absconded with the ill-gotten loot. They unsurprisingly liked the cute, exotic, and mischievous animal even if they weren’t crazy about the Animatronics used to bring it to life.

In a fit of mercenary inspiration Bruckheimer decided that if audiences hated his R-rated crime comedy and wanted a family-friendly PG movie about a sassy anthropomorphic rapping marsupial then dammit, they were going to get a family-friendly PG movie about a sassy anthropomorphic rapping marsupial.

Bruckheimer was inspired by the ad campaign for Disney’s recent hit Snow Dogs. Snow Dogs was based on a true story but commercials made it look like a zany fantasy involving talking dogs. Bruckheimer figured that if he could similarly trick audiences into thinking that Kangaroo Jack was about talking animals with attitude then he could prevent certain disaster. So Bruckheimer ordered ten million dollars worth of re-shoots involving an expressive, anthropomorphic CGI marsupial who not only talks and does impressions but also performs “Rapper’s Delight”, a landmark jam made famous by the Rapping Granny from Wedding Singer and, to a lesser extent, the Sugarhill Gang.

Jackie Legs, the sticky-fingered kangaroo at the center of the action, only talks during a dream sequence and during an end credit showcase where he breaks the fourth wall and favors us with a Dr. Evil impersonation but the film’s advertising made it seem like he spends the film joyfully jabbering away.

To fit the new family and animal focus the movie was re-titled Kangaroo Jack and edited down from an R to a PG. Bruckheimer could have aimed for a PG-13 but he wasn’t taking any chances. Bruckheimer was going to do everything in his power to ensure that children saw a movie that was not made for them and wasn’t particularly family-friendly even after extensive cuts. Bruckheimer’s cynicism paid off. Test audiences loved the film’s new direction. Scores shot through the roof. Jackie Legs was the centerpiece of an ad campaign for a movie that wasn’t a blockbuster but wasn’t a flop either. It grossed nearly a hundred million dollars worldwide and was successful enough to spawn a direct-to-video sequel, 2004’s Kangaroo Jack: G'Day U.S.A.!, an animated cheapie where Jackie Legs fulfills the hopes and dreams of innocent children everywhere by talking.

Even after being softened for kiddie audiences, Kangaroo Jack retains the juvenile, bratty and assaultive air of a quintessential Bruckheimer production. Jerry O’Connell and Anthony Anderson fail to establish themselves as the Abbott and Costello of the oughts as heroes Charlie Carbone and Louis Booker respectively.

Louis is the troublemaker of the duo forever pulling his longtime best buddy into harebrained schemes while Charlie is the responsible one, a hairdresser who works in a salon his mob kingpin stepfather Sal Maggio (the inherently entertaining Christopher Walken, oozing charisma and personality even in this sorry context) bought him.

Michael Shannon costars as Frankie Lombardo, Sal’s primary lieutenant. Shannon’s punishingly intense presence alone would seem to push the movie into PG-13 territory. Shannon does nothing to water down his fundamental darkness for family audiences. The apoplectic expression he sports throughout the film seems to belong to Shannon the actor as much, if not more, than the character he’s playing.

When Charlie and Louis screw up yet again Sal sends them to Australia to deliver an envelope containing fifty thousand dollars. The unlovable losers don’t realize that they’re supposed to die in Australia for their transgressions and, being hopelessly inept bunglers, promptly proceed to lose the envelope containing the money when the titular marsupial makes off with it and then disappears into the outback.

Jerry O'Connell, Anthony Anderson, and Michael Shannon at the 2003 premiere of Kangaroo Jack.

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Kangaroo Jack runs a mere eighty-nine minutes but proves an endurance test all the same. It’s too vulgar, smutty, and violent for the small children that served as its primary audience but too insultingly stupid and pandering for adults. Bruckheimer tried to make a movie for adults, or at least emotionally stunted man-children with man caves and Maxim subscriptions. Then he tried to make a movie for bored children. That didn’t work either but since children are famously undiscriminating, particularly where cute animals are concerned, he managed to achieve at least a modest level of commercial success, particularly once home video is factored in, where he should have experienced only crushing failure.

Bruckheimer’s big bait and switch generated a fair amount of bad buzz and negative press attention, including a lengthy article in The Los Angeles Times chronicling the film’s strange path from R-rated adult flop to PG family favorite. But from a legal and commercial standpoint, he got away with it. He might not be so lucky today. A class action lawsuit was recently filed against the makers of Yesterday on the grounds that its trailer constituted false advertising since they prominently feature Ana De Armas, a popular actress who was cut out of the film itself.

It’s probably too late for moviegoers deceived by Kangaroo Jack, and its seeming promise of wall-to-wall rapping kangaroo action to file a lawsuit of their own. The statute of limitations has undoubtedly run out and anyone involved with a potential lawsuit would have to make a humiliating confession that they chose to see Kangaroo Jack of their own free will even if they feel like they were tricked into doing so.

You can rent Kangaroo Jack to stream on YouTube and a variety of other services.

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