Pufnstuf - The Movie Review
Traditionally, when a TV series makes a move to the big screen, the opportunity to expand on the familiar format of the 20-30 minute show is rarely taken advantage of - even more so when it’s a children’s TV show, and in the case of H.R. Pufnstuf, Sid and Marty Krofft’s live-action animation series from 1969, Pufnstuf The Movie is definitely a case of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it.
There wasn’t a great deal of plot variation in the original 17 episode series, which I’ve reviewed here, but will summarise below. Jack Wild, the young British actor who had just played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! (1968) stars as Jimmy, a young boy with a golden talking flute called Freddie. One day he comes across a magic boat which takes him to Living Island. The boat however was sent out by a wicked witch called Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes) as a trap to try and capture the magic flute for herself. When the boat gets shipwrecked by a sudden storm, Jimmy is saved by a big, colourful, friendly dragon called H. R. Pufnstuf, the mayor of Living Island, a fantastical place where everything from the houses to the trees is alive.
That much – summarised at the start of every episode – is retained in the feature film, the background expanded slightly in the opening sequence here to show just a little more of Jimmy’s life in the real world. It depicts him as an outsider with a funny accent, his father transferred through work from England over to the USA, picked on by the other kids at school, suggesting – for those looking to put some psychology behind the fantasy – that the lonely boy perhaps retreats to a safer, friendlier fantasy world, the flute that he plays in the orchestra becoming his only friend.
That however is pretty much the limit of any extension on the successful formula of the TV series, which for the remainder of the film falls back on the familiar plot of Witchiepoo’s constant attempts, with the assistance of her henchmen Orson and Seymour and some accomplice trees in the Evil Forest, to capture the golden flute and lock it away in the dungeons of her dark fortress. Here in Pufnstuf The Movie, Witchiepoo hopes that possession of such a rare and exquisite talking gold flute encrusted with diamonds, will win her the favour of the Boss Witch and nomination as “Witch of the Year”. If the story in the movie often feels familiar, it soon becomes clear that it is also because it’s largely patched together from the best bits of the TV series, but as a film it remains surprising fluid and entertaining.
Even though the production sets don’t appear to have been greatly improved beyond the addition of grainy real sky backscreen projections for Witchiepoo’s flights on her Vroom-Broom, the colourful costumes and locations hold up relatively well and enhanced by their transfer to the big screen. What has also been boosted somewhat more is the sixties feel of the setting and the psychedelic references of in the colourful world of living objects. Here we have hippie trees, Witchiepoo disguising herself at one stage as a swinging hipster Betsy Bugaloo and, of course, the appearance in the film of Mama Cass as Witch Hazel. The not particularly memorable musical score of the film (other than the 'Living Island' theme tune) is elsewhere enlivened by her performance of 'Different' – a sentiment that chimes neatly with Jimmy’s own experience – complete with psychedelic splashes of colour, camera effects and dancing witches.
Jack Wild, having in reality turned 18 already looking slightly older than he looked in the TV series, remains charismatic as the young Jimmy, with the rather wet Pufnstuf remaining side-lined for most of the film, but Pufnstuf: The Movie – as the opening and closing addresses to the camera that bookend the film indicate – is really the Witchiepoo show. Fully aware of how much her character’s naughtiness appeals to children and trusting in their ability to see some degree of vulnerability behind her wicked nature, Billie Hayes plays it up marvellously with a shrieking laugh that could crack glass (and a face to match), getting all the best lines and delivering them zestfully with a great sense of comic timing and exaggeration that is strong enough to carry the film beyond its limitations and give it a little more of an edge beyond the comfortable familiarity of the TV series.
Pufnstuf The Movie is released in the UK by Fabulous Films / Metrodome. Pointlessly and somewhat wastefully, it’s released as a 2-disc set, both discs single-layered. The DVD is in PAL format, and encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only.
The video quality of the Pufnstuf movie is a definite step up from Fabulous Film’s NTSC-PAL standards conversion of the UK DVD of the H. R. Pufnstuf TV series, with a native PAL transfer that exhibits none of the interlacing, blurring and colouration issues of the series on DVD. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of about 1.80:1 with very slight window-boxing on all sides, and is anamorphically enhanced. The image itself looks excellent, the full colours of the film looking quite vivid and well defined, with brightness tones and blacks looking just fine. Grain is finely detailed, and only really noticeable really on the back projections of the sky, and as such it’s inherent in the original materials. Detail and clarity are good, but on a single-layer disc, not exceptional, with movements showing up slightly more blurring than normal – but not anything you would really notice in normal playback. Most pleasingly, there are no marks or scratches anywhere on the print and the transfer remains fluid with no evidence of digital enhancement or compression issues.
The audio track is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 and presumably mono. It’s hardly exceptional, but the dialogue is clear, the music is well toned, and it even holds up well to the louder passages of Billie Hayes shrieking witch laughter, with no distortion and little in the way of analogue background noise.
There are no subtitles on the DVD, and no English hard-of-hearing options.
All the extra features are on Disc 2.
The three interviews are the same as the ones included on the H. R. Pufnstuf TV series DVD set, an Interview with Sid and Marty Krofft (22:06), an Interview with Billie Hayes (10:32), and an Interview with Jack Wild (11:42), all of which are fond and informative looks back at the making of the series.
Related directly to Pufnstuf The Movie however is an array of Publicity and Production materials. The Original Publicity Material consists of Posters (2), Lobby Cards (8), Black and White Production Stills (78), Wardrobe Stills (76), Behind The Scenes Stills (27) and Publicity Stills (11), Colour Stills (5) and a reproduction of the Original Publicity Material Brochure. Original Production Material takes the Original Film Synopsis from the brochure and has a Cast List and Production Credits.
Losing only the initials HR, the 1970 feature film of Pufnstuf brings the TV series fairly successfully if somewhat safely to the big screen. There’s not a lot here that’s new, and there’s no resolution of Jimmy’s escape from Living Island, but who would want to escape from that wonderful place anyway? Anyone of a similar age to myself looking to escape back to their own childhood will find this wonderfully entertaining, and the humour and imagination in evidence could also easily win over a new generation of fans. Long awaited on DVD – and the subject of many e-mail queries I’ve received since I reviewed the TV series – Fabulous Films fine presentation of the Pufnstuf movie on a 2-disc set will delight a great many people.