A much-buzzed-about trailer for a new Banana Splits movie has people pretty freaked out. Just last month, the trailer for the direct-too-streaming live-action remake of that one cartoon-you-kind-of-remember, managed to inspire widespread horror including headlines like “The Banana Splits Trailer: SyFy Destroys Your Childhood.” Other reactions ranged from “This looks terrifying” to “What the fuck is that bullshit and why would want to see it?” In short, most people more horrified by the movie’s sheer existence and juvenile empty shock rather than impressed by its audacity or potential subversiveness. Tellingly, this is why the upcoming Banana Splits movie is such a weird failure: By being so obvious about its weirdness it’s actually not that weird.
In the good old days, Hanna-Barbera produced part live-action, part-animated show that aired from 1968 to 1970. It was about the misadventures of psychedelic rockers Fleegle (guitar, vocals, dog ), Bingo (drums, vocals, ape), Drooper (bass, vocals, lion) and of course Snorky (keyboards, elephant). The first season was directed by Richard Donner, who you probably think of as the guy who directed the 1978 Superman movie with Christopher Reeve. Did Donner or anyone else involved with the original Splits intend to create a horror show for kids? Of course not. But, as the show aired in reruns in perpetuity, it accidentally scanned as a nightmarish, soul-scarring, child-traumatizing horror series. Now, the new movie is just straight-up horror movie about members of the Banana Splits running murderously amok after their kids show is canceled, which, in theory, is kind of smart. Except that it isn’t.
Let’s watch the trailer again and discuss.
What the R-rated Banana Splits movie is doing is making the subtext text. It’s taking the element of extreme horror and ultra-violence and insanity lurking under the surface of so much beloved children’s entertainment —from Wizard of Oz to Babe: Pig in the City — and making it the main narrative thrust. That might seem like a neat trick from the outside but something essential and true gets lost when that happens, even when dealing with something as dopey and disposable as The Banana Splits.
People like to unpack and interpret sexual and violent undertones in entertainment aimed at children themselves. We like to act as makeshift pop culture deconstructionists finding hidden and not so hidden meaning in the art and detritus of our childhoods. Audiences want to figure out for themselves what childhood entertainment is really about, whether that’s drugs (everything Sid and Marty Krofft ever touched, including the Banana Splits, whose sets they designed), sex, violence, politics or trying to win children’s souls for Jesus.
Take the aforementioned Babe: Pig in the City. It’s radical and wildly subversive precisely because it began from such a place of innocence and sweetness, as the sequel to a beloved instant family classic that conquered the world, yet took the saga of poor Babe, Christ figure and perpetual sufferer, in such an unexpectedly brutal, yet somehow still G-rated direction. Because, if you overtly crossed the Babe series with Saw franchise and made the second film Babe 2/Saw 6: Going H.A.M, a hard-rated gore-fest about what happens when Babe meets Jigsaw in a very nasty part of the city and finds himself playing a series of sadistic games in a bloody quest for survival; you’ve crassly ruined what made the David Lynchian sequel so special, unexpected and beloved.
It’s what I like to call the “Snakes on a Plane Syndrome”; when a movie announces itself as an instant camp/cult classic the way the Samuel L. Jackson zeitgeist-capturer did we have a tendency to reject it for its pre-fabricated nature, for pre-interpreting itself for the audience so it can loudly affirm its cult awesomeness and subversiveness at every turn even when it has done nothing to deserve such rapturous self-love. Besides, it’s not as if it takes much work to make the world of Banana Splits scary and horrifying. Reading the hour-long show’s description on Wikipedia, with its incoherent yet staggeringly cynical and calculating combination of Laugh-In (which the Banana Splits once appeared on) and The Monkees is an experience every bit as confusing, difficult to understand and unnerving as the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft.
But just because something causes nightmares, as the Banana Splits undoubtedly have, doesn’t mean they need to join Freddy and Jason and Pinhead in the pantheon of horror movie villains and slaughterers of wayward teens. Even characters with names as stupid as Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky, who look as dopey as the Banana Splits do, deserve a fate more dignified than being “re-imagined” as ghoulish figures who murder young people instead of entertaining them, or combine the murder and entertainment in a bold new breed of “murdertainment.”
The Banana Splits are at least obscure and modestly liked enough that news that they were killers now inspired half-hearted shrugs of “Well that’s weird” and “That’s not gonna work.” The response would be much harsher and angrier if a remake like this had tackled something that people actually liked. The Banana Splits Movie at least has the decency to desecrate, for shocks and dollars, a kiddie “classic” people remember faintly, like an unreliable dream, and not something of worth that the public legitimately and genuinely loves.
But, if someone were to make a revisionist Sesame Street movie where lovable, furry old Grover is now a meth-addicted murderer, for example, the line to kidnap and torture the people responsible for such a film would be a mile long. Because that would be an actual transgression. That would be actually offensive. Meanwhile, making the Banana Splits into horror, while “interesting” is actually, the safest and blandest thing that’s happened to a kids’ reboot in a long, long time.
The Banana Splits hits streaming on August 13 and will be on Blu-ray on August 27.