Producers Sid and Marty Krofft have spent decades denying that their Day-Glo children’s-fantasy shows of the ’60s and ’70s were influenced by the drug culture of the era, but let’s get real. Some of the images in Pufnstuf, a theatrical feature made to capitalize on the fleeting popularity of the Kroffts’ 1969-1970 series H.R. Pufnstuf, seem like flashes from an acid trip. Not only does the main villain, Wilhelmina W. Witchiepoo (Billie Hayes), dress like a crazy-quilt version of a circus clown, but she makes bizarre transformations. In one scene, she becomes a hippy-dippy dancer named Betsy Boogaloo, her fringe jacket flailing as she gives a hyperactive dance lesson juiced by undercranked camerawork. In another scene, she becomes a flower, so her normal-sized face protrudes from a ring of giant petals while she shoos away a nettlesome bee that means to pollinate her mouth. And what is one to make of the character “Stupid Bat,” an aeronautically challenged purple rodent who bashes into walls until declaring, “I’m beginning to like this”? How can anyone argue this stuff doesn’t celebrate the joy of altered states?
Pufnstuf tells a condensed version of the same tale featured in the 17 episodes of H.R. Pufnstuf. Young misfit Jimmy (Jack Wild) wanders into a forest one day, singing about loneliness until his flute comes to life and declares that it’s named Freddy. (Or, as Wild says in his cloying lisp, “Fweddy.”) The boy and the flute discover a magic boat and sail off to adventure, but Witchiepoo flies overhead on her motorized “Vroom Broom” and transforms the boat into a monster. Jimmy and Freddy escape to Living Island. Among the island’s residents is a yellow dragon with a giant head, H.R. Pufnstuf. He and his allies combat Witchiepoo’s various schemes to kidnap Freddy, so the plot shamelessly echoes that of The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Sprinkled throughout the picture are weird tropes and vignettes. Rock singer “Mama” Cass Elliot, of the Mamas and the Papas, plays one of Witchiepoo’s fellow sorcerers, Witch Hazel. Elliot’s first shot is a fat joke of sorts, not exactly the kindest way to present the plus-sized thrush; her face obscured by brightly colored makeup, Elliot is shown gorging herself while reclining in a giant bathtub filled with fruit. Things get even more crass later. When Boss Witch (Martha Raye) makes her entrance, she’s accompanied by a giant rat with a German accent and an SS uniform. Nazi jokes? In a kidde flick?
Pufnstuf has the same bargain-basement production values as the series from which it was derived, with cheap-looking costumes and two-dimensional sets. Any novelty of encountering these familiar items in an unfamiliar context wears off quickly. Moreover, the moralistic and simple-minded storytelling is tiresome, and so is Wild’s gee-whiz performance. Even Hayes tests viewers’ patience with her constant cackling and screaming, though none could ever question her commitment to the role. In lieu of actual quality, the strange stuff makes the biggest impression. All the random vocal references to old-time movie stars, like the West Wind—as in the actual breeze—mimicking John Wayne’s macho drawl. All those shots of a gopher popping up through the floor while carrying a bag of smoke. And those colors, eye-popping primaries and robust secondaries blending into a rainbow of visual stimulation. On the surface, Pufnstuf is a forgettable fantasy adventure. Underneath, it’s a gonzo exercise in hallucinogenic escapism.