The Best Dwarf Movies That Aren’t Willow

Please listen to the Randy Newman song, “Short People,” before you read this article. It will make me seem far less insensitive.

Come with me...and you'll be...in a world of slave-dwarf manipulation...

Come with me…and you’ll be…in a world of slave-dwarf manipulation…

10. A nostalgic favorite, loved by many: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). People may bicker amongst themselves at social gatherings and brouhahas regarding which Dahl adaptation is better, but the intelligent ones among us already know it’s the psychedelic, charmingly dated Gene Wilder one. The Oompa Loompas (played by a large grouping of thespian little people) were a huge part of the film and were what made it so memorable. If there was no Wilder or awesome Grandpa Joe, you’d still be seeing orange faces with green pompadours singing in your sleep.

Adorable.

Adorable.

9. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) is a typical 30’s cowboy musical melodrama. The twist is that the entire cast is comprised of (mostly German) dwarfs. What might have been a forgettable genre romp becomes a kooky, fun, possibly offensive, western adventure that’s difficult to forget. Whether it’s Shetland ponies thundering through the sagebrush or pint-sized bar fights, it’s hard not to appreciate this diminutive curio. It may have been made as an exploitative novelty, but I actually really like the movie.

Throw me a freakin' bone here!

Throw me a freakin’ bone here!

8. Mike Myers made a pretty solid sequel—despite Heather Graham—with Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999). Austin Powers and Dr. Evil are still funny, but it is the added character of Mini-Me (playe by Verne Troyer) that might be the most memorable part. Every scene between Dr. Evil and Mini-Me is sick and hilarious.

I think Dorothy takes the transition from black&white Kansas to this rather gracefully.

I think Dorothy takes the transition from black&white Kansas to this rather gracefully.

7. The Wizard of Oz (1939) is a Hollywood classic and a great musical fantasy, but all the technicolor in the world could not eclipse the Munchkins’ big scene when Dorothy first arrives in Oz, and then the terror of the flying monkeys piercing through the night sky only to savagely disembowel the Scarecrow. I don’t think this film gets enough credit for how surreal it is. Many of these little actors were in Tiny Town as well.

I know. I know. Only six dwarfs. Deal with it. They're all matadors.

I know. I know. Only six dwarfs. Deal with it. They’re all matadors.

6. This next movie only solidifies the stereotype that all Spaniards are matadors. Blancanieves (2012) is a Spanish retelling of Snow White as a 1920s silent movie. . . also, all the characters are matadors. The dwarfs (who are matadors too) don’t show up until about halfway into this bizarre film, but they add much heart and soul to the tragic yarn.

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

Welcome to Fantasy Island!

5. If you love the 80’s, chances are you like Oingo Boingo. This cock-eyed band produced a wild, acid-trip of a film to simulate the experience of their concerts. The Forbidden Zone (1982) is one crazy, hyperactive, super-surreal, mushroom-binge musical comedy about the Hercules family getting lost in the sixth dimension. And it’s way more weird and demented than it sounds.  Little man Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) plays the horny King Fausto, ruler of the eponymous realm.

Badassery is afoot.

Badassery be afoot.

4. Werner Herzog might be one of the more interesting directors working today. Most famous for Grizzly ManFitzcarraldo, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God, this German weirdo also made movies where the entire cast was acting under hypnosis as well as a non-narrative collage of images attempting to conjure desert mirages. No wonder one of his earliest films was a black & white allegory about psychos escaping from an asylum only to imprison the warden, set fire to potted plants, tease blind people, and crucify monkeys. As the title might hint, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) is an entirely little person cast. And it’s nuts.

It's the "Citizen Kane" of movies.

It’s the “Citizen Kane” of movies.

3. How many Filipino 007-knockoff midgetsploitation flicks are out there? Counting For Y’ur Height Only (1980) there’s at least one. Weng Weng stars as a dwarf James Bond in this extremely low-budget action spoof that is a must-see for cult and schlock fans alike. Jet-packs, kung-fu, umbrella parachutes, copious amounts of shooting people, x-ray t-shades, and jammin’ discotheque rendezvous are here in spades. It’s grainy, awkward, and nonstop fun.

Make it a Browning/Earles double feature.

Make it a Browning/Earles double feature.

2. Tie! I really couldn’t decide and Harry Earles (Wizard of Oz) is featured prominently in both films. Freaks (1932) is Tod Browning’s controversial opus that stars actual circus sideshow performers. It’s a horror melodrama surrounding the plot of a rich dwarf (Earles) who is conned out of his money by a wicked trapeze artist who seduces him. It’s a breezy build-up to a genuinely disturbing revenge-filled third act. Earles stars again alongside Lon Chaney, Sr. in another Browning masterpiece, The Unholy Three (1925). It’s a crime melodrama about three circus renegades who embark on a life of crime. Chaney pretends to be an old woman and Earles pretends to be a baby. Throw in an mad ape rampage in the finale and you got yourself a deranged bit of pulp.

Bonus info: I'm actually only lukewarm about "Willow."

Bonus info: I’m actually only lukewarm about “Willow.”

1. Finally, the best dwarf movie that is not Willow is Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981). A young British boy is shanghaied by six time-traveling dwarfs on the run from the Supreme Being (Sir Ralph Richardson). They have a map of all the holes in the universe and use it to rob the greatest characters in history. . . until Satan (David Warner) screws up their plans. Despite Sean Connery, John Cleese, Shelley Duvall, Michael Palin, Ian Holm, and other guest stars, it is the Time Bandits themselves that make the film. Some were formerly Ewoks and Oompa Loompas, but now they get to show their faces and engage in a real twisted fantasy adventure. Kenny Baker (a.k.a. R2-D2) is even one of the main characters. It’s awesome, funny, very imaginative, and is my number one pick.

Honorable Mentions:

El Topo (1970). Alejandro Jodorowsky’s (Santa Sangre) most famous work has its share of dwarfs, amputees, and hyper-violent spiritual symbolism, but the dwarf woman he marries in the film doesn’t play large enough a role.

The Station Agent (2003). Peter Dinklage (Death at a Funeral) stars in this quiet drama, but there’s no monsters or dragons in this movie so it does not make the list.

Life’s Too Short (2011). Warwick Davis (Willow) stars in this amazing and hilarious series from Ricky Gervais. Alas, it’s not a movie so cannot make the list, but it is worth seeing.

Originally posted on net.sideBar on August 21, 2013.

More Movies You Didn’t See: Zaniness Abounds

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I am a simple person who is really tickled when things surprise and take me off guard. Like a baby being shown a set of jangling keys.

The first movie has become something of a cult classic. It was directed by a prominent cult filmmaker (the guy behind Audition, Ichi the Killer, and Gozu) and it blends genres in a fun, unforgettable way. It’s Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001). I first saw it several years ago with my good friend Mat, as part of a crazed double-feature with Jan Svankmajer’s Alice. It was a good time had by most.

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Katakuris is actually a liberty-taking remake of a Korean film called The Quiet Family directed by Kim Ji-woon. The story is quaint enough. An adorably down-and-out Japanese family opens up a bed and breakfast in the country but nobody shows up…but when guests do start arriving and then dying unexpectedly the Katakuris decide to bury the bodies on the property to avoid bad publicity. Did I mention it’s also a musical?

There are many other subplots among the characters. Katakuris is narrated by the youngest Katakuri as a sort of innocent reflection on what makes a family. Her mother is always looking for love and winds up getting conned by the sleazy Richard Sagawa. Her uncle is trying to find direction in his life and overcome the stigma of being a thief in the past. The grandparents are the ones who are trying their darndest to keep the bed and breakfast alive and great grandfather has an ongoing rivalry with birds that fly overhead.

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Miike weaves in some weird jokes throughout: a fly burrows into a newscaster’s nostril; the entire cast is arbitrarily transformed into stop-motion clay figures at random. You know. Stuff like that. The film is purposely campy and very silly at times, yet despite all of its melodramatic whimsy and spoofery there is a real heart beating down in there. The songs are actually really good too. Every song evokes a different style, be it showtune, rock, sing-along, karaoke number, etc. It’s a wild, weird, funny, and oddly heartwarming film about the importance of family and I strongly urge you to see it for yourself.

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Next up is a film that springs from the early career of Werner Herzog. Mr. Herzog has proven he is a master storyteller and documentarian (often blurring the lines between fictional narrative and traditional documentary) with such memorable films as  Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972), Fitzcarraldo (1985), Grizzly Man (2005), The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans (2009), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) to name a few. Whether he’s looking for desert mirages (Fata Morgana), remaking F. W. Murnau’s immortal classic Nosferatu with Klaus Kinski or he’s directing a literally hypnotized cast (Heart of Glass) Herzog is always full of invention and surprises. His second feature film, Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970) may not be for everybody.

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It’s an all little-person cast, black-and-white, German-language movie that appears to take place in some Spanish desert. It’s got everything. Satire. Dwarfs. Car stunts. Maniacal laughter. Persecution of the blind. Monkey crucifixion. The dwarf who plays the president is even the dwarf who plays the president in Robert Downey, Sr.’s Putney Swope.

The story is fairly simple enough. An all dwarf mental institution is taken over by the patients (think Svankmajer’s Lunacy). They lock up the president and run amok. Like many ill-bred revolutionaries they lack foresight and don’t really know what to do with themselves once their dimly conceived role reversal is achieved. The revolution quickly goes awry and devolves into chaos. Much symbolism and much humor and much, much craziness in this early film from a cock-eyed filmmaking beast. A treat for a very special few and would make a great triple-feature with The Terror of Tiny-Town and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits. Or For Y’ur Height Only!

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A Town Called Panic (2009) is Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar’s feature-length adventure based on their Belgian stop-motion TV series of the same name. It is a madcap romp through a whimsical world where anything can happen…as long as it is absurd or funny.

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Three lovable roommates, the aptly named Cowboy, Indian, and Horse, go on an adventure to correct a construction error. Horse, a pragmatist, signs up for music lessons to get closer to the music teacher (who is also a horse), but Cowboy and Indian, in an attempt to order 50 bricks to build Horse a barbecue pit for his birthday, accidentally purchase 50,000,000 bricks and thus the bent harmony of Horse’s world is thrust into a twistedly inane series of events.

Evil scientists lob snowballs from the north pole in a giant robot penguin, the trio gets lost in the center of the earth, and they meet an underwater parallel universe inhabited by amphibious pranksters. It’s nonstop silly excitement. Perhaps what makes A Town Called Panic such an unusual experience derives from the crudity of the cheesy plastic toy animations. The film kinda feels like your watching a child’s school project diorama do crack and come to life. I also enjoy the little touches, like the farm animals that behave like farm animals but also go to school and can drive (like children playing with toys). It’s light, breezy, fun, and funny and sure to entertain the whole family.

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What’s one more cult classic? Oingo Boingo (then called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo) founder, Richard Elfman, made the off-color assault, The Forbidden Zone (1980) to create something that would feel like one of their concert shows. The result was a bawdy, black-and-white (finally colorized in 2008), cracked musical-comedy adventure steeped in the surreal. The film is loaded with frog-headed men, human chandeliers, torture, butt jokes, songs, and plenty of wild, wacky sound effects and characters.

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Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island) stars as the super horny King Fausto of the Sixth Dimension (a strange amalgam of Max Fleischer cartoons, minstrel shows, and sexual fetishism) with Susan Tyrell as the jealous Queen Doris. The Hercules family purchases a humble shack in Venice, California from a narcotics dealer—unbeknownst to them there is a portal to the Sixth Dimension in the basement.

When starry-eyed Frenchy Hercules (Marie-Pascale Elfman) winds up passing through the intestinal portal of the Sixth Dimension, the amorous King of this highly unusual dominion takes a shine to her and so he keeps her for himself. My favorite characters, Flash (a curiously old man for Frenchy’s brother) and Grampa Hercules, descend into the bowels (quite literally) of the Sixth Dimension to rescue her. Things get weirder and weirder. The Kipper Kids perform a raspberry grunting duet, a Chicken Boy (Matthew Bright) loses his head, Danny Elfman plays a Cab Calloway-covering Satan, and soon everyone is bouncing around the cartoon walls of King Fausto’s kingdom.

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As with Katakuris, this movie has a lot of great songs (a must-see for Oingo Boingo fans), and it also has a special place in my heart because it was one of the first “weird movies” I ever saw. It’s a special kind of cracked gratuitous raucousness and it definitely won’t be for everyone, but it is a solid cult classic and (for the right mindset) it can be a whole lot of fun. (The main theme was also lifted for the Dilbert TV series intro music). This movie opened my eyes and changed my life. There was life, then there was life after I had seen The Forbidden Zone.

So there you have it. Two musicals, an animated kid’s show, and a social satire…but oh, so much more. Movies are supposed to be fun and sometimes when movies seem like they almost don’t even care about the audience they appear to have the most fun.

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Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Nov. 23, 2010.