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.

1c

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.

1d

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

Trilogy Gilliam

"It's..."

“It’s…”

Terry Gilliam is a highly imaginative man with a background as a cartoonist and animator. He has a famous history with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and he makes extremely high-concept yet personal fantasy films that usually have a dark sense of humor and a wonderfully skewed (but not far off) view of the world. Here is responsible for such wonderful films as Twelve Monkeys (1995) (best Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt performances!) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (best Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro performances!). And his Python stuff is amazing! Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Terry Gilliam has been a unique and fascinating voice in the world of film.

Metropolis meets Dali

Metropolis meets Dali

I was meh on Jabberwocky (1977); mixed on The Fisher King (1991); disappointed by The Brothers Grimm (2005): a little iffy on Tideland (2005); and not quite sold on The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), but he is still one of my favorite filmmakers. Gilliam always offers tantalizingly askew visuals blended with humorous surrealism. I don’t have to think hard to come to the conclusion that my all-time favorite movies from Mr. Gilliam are from his unofficial “Dreamer Trilogy”: Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). All three feature protagonists who are stuck in a bureaucratic/materialistic world and must deal with the unapologetic clash of fantasy and reality. In these worlds dreams are the only escape.

"Hello. I'm Hood."

“Hello. I’m Hood.”

Time Bandits features the dreamer character as a young boy named Kevin (Craig Warnock). Kevin’s parents are tedious TV-heads who seem aloof at best. Kevin prefers reading about history and magic and amazing battles rather than watch nauseating game shows with his parents. When a group of time-traveling dwarfs (played by Jack Purvis, David Rappaport, Malcolm Dixon, Kenny Baker, Mike Edmonds, Tiny Ross: former Ewoks, Oompa Loompas, elves, and aliens from other science fiction and fantasy films—Kenny Baker was R2-D2!) show up in Kevin’s room on the lam from the Supreme Being (Sir Ralph Richardson), Kevin winds up on the adventure of a lifetime.

"Oh, Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence."

“Oh, Benson, you are so mercifully free of the ravages of intelligence.”

The Time Bandits travel through time with the only map of all the holes in the universe (the fabric of which is evidently far from perfect). They burgle people throughout history. The ragtag band meet up with an insecure Napoleon Bonaparte (Ian Holm), a prissy Robin Hood (John Cleese), noble King Agamemnon (Sean Connery), and many other fun characters (played by Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall, Peter Vaughan, Katherine Helmond, Jim Broadbent, etc.) all whilst being pursued by the Supreme Being who wants his map back. Then there’s Evil (in a delightfully wicked performance from David Warner). Evil wants the map for himself so he can rule the world. The film is a nonstop delight of eccentricities and oddities. Warner, Cleese, and Palin steal some of the best lines.

How decisions are made.

How decisions are made.

Brazil follows the daydreams of an adult man named Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) in a not-too-distant future nightmare that blends the styles of the 1940s with archaic projections of the space age alongside Gilliamesque flights of fancy. The look of this film is amazing and the story is a sort of amalgam of James Thurber, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka.

It's only a state of mind.

It’s only a state of mind.

Sam is a spineless cog in the creaking wheel of bureaucratic progress (although progress is pretty static in Gilliam’s take on the world). His mother (Katherine Helmond) keeps getting plastic surgery; his apartment is being trashed by disgruntled electrical technicians (Bob Hoskins and Derrick O’Connor); terrorists—or maybe it’s the government?—keep bombing places; Sam’s best friend (Michael Palin) happens to torture people for the state; and a strange underground vigilante/heating engineer (Robert DeNiro) seems to be the only one who makes any sense in this cock-eyed reality. Other members of the cast include Jim Broadbent, Peter Vaughan, Jack Purvis, and Charles McKeown. While Sam is hard at work in the relentless machine, he dreams he is a winged superhero battling samurai, rescuing the girl, and fighting obstacles that vaguely mirror the problems in his waking life. When Sam discovers that his dream girl (Kim Griest) really exists he will attempt to take on the system to save her life and save the day, because when the real world is as bleak as it is in Brazil sometimes dreams are the only things worth fighting for.

"Brazil, where hearts were entertaining june. We stood beneath an amber moon And softly murmured 'someday soon.'"

“Brazil, where hearts were entertaining June. We stood beneath an amber moon. And softly murmured ‘someday soon.'”

The humor is dark, the hallucinations deliriously captivating, the tone gritty and gray, and the solutions elusive and thought provoking. The scary message still rings true today. I still feel Brazil to be one of Gilliam’s absolute best and most significant films.

"A eunuch's life is hard."

“A eunuch’s life is hard.”

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen based on Rudolph Raspe’s novel, puts us in the seat of aging fantasist, Heironymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen (John Neville). The Baron seems out of place in the Age of Reason, but seeks to set the record straight about who he is in a bombed out theater in a battered town under siege by the Turk. Everyone has been treating the Baron’s stories as fiction until young Sally Salt (Sarah Polley) believes him and the two go on a fantastic adventure to find the Baron’s extraordinary friends who can help save the town. They travel to the moon in a balloon to rescue the Baron’s amazingly fast companion, Berthold (Eric Idle), but the King and Queen of the Moon (Robin Williams and Valentina Cortese) have other plans.

"He's not going to get far on hot air and fantasy."

“He’s not going to get far on hot air and fantasy.”

They then descend into the center of the earth via the volcano of Mt. Etna where they meet the short-tempered god, Vulcan (Oliver Reed), and lovely goddess, Venus (Uma Thurman). There they also discover the Baron’s super strong friend, Albrecht (Winston Dennis). After they pass through the center of the earth and emerge on the other side they’re swallowed up by a giant sea monster and inside they find several broken ships and two more of the Baron’s disassembled band: the hawk-eyed sharpshooter, Adolphus (Charles McKeown), and the dwarf with a mighty wind for breath, Gustavus (Jack Purvis). It’s up to Sally to believe in the Baron whenever he gets discouraged and to chase away the Grim Reaper whenever he tries to collect the Baron’s soul. Once they reunite with the Baron’s trusty steed, Bucephalus, Sally and the band of geriatric heroes return to the town to battle the Turk and silence the fantasy-hating Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson (Jonathan Pryce). Thus the old dreamer conquers all through the power of fantasy.

"The body is dead. Long live the head."

“The body is dead. Long live the head.”

You will notice many recurring actors in Gilliam films as well as an apparent affinity for tattered, complex garments and incessant use of extreme wide-angle and deep focus lenses. He gets compared to Tim Burton sometimes because they both have very strong visual styles that dictate a unique tone, but they are very different filmmakers indeed. Burton’s aesthetics originate from silent German Expressionist cinema. Gilliam seems more inspired by Heironymous Bosch. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Gilliam should have directed Alice in Wonderland! Terry Gilliam is a talented dream-weaver and when he is at his best, it’s sits uneasily with you. When he’s at his most off, it is still fascinating to observe. Gilliam celebrates the wonders and the horrors of the untamed imagination. I admire and am in awe of where Gilliam seeks to take us and I hope you too will take the tour.

Enter if you dare...

Enter if you dare…

Originally published for the “Alternative Chronicle” December 10, 2009.