Monday, June 13, 2016

A Whale of a Tale (1976)

          Perhaps because I don’t have children, I occasionally make the mistake of cutting kiddie movies slack if they’re harmless and they espouse positive values. Who am I to say where young viewers draw the line between tolerable and intolerable silliness? Even within that context, however, I’m comfortable saying that A Whale of a Tale is remarkably bad. Not only are the production values flimsy, and not only does the picture basically serve as a feature-length ad for the now-defunct California theme park Marineland of the Pacific, but the storyline involves so many inappropriate and implausible scenes that it’s enough to warp the perceptions of any child exposed to its 90 befuddling minutes.
          Yet in a perverse way, the unrelenting dumbness of A Whale of a Tale is what makes it such prime fodder for ironic viewing by grown-ups who are already so warped, myself included, that exposure to new stimuli can’t make any difference. For, lest this point not receive specific emphasis, A Whale of a Tale costars William Shatner and one of his most absurd hairpieces. Moreover, Shatner bonds with a little boy in vignettes so awkward that they recall the scene in Airplane! (1980) during which Captain Oveur asks Joey if he likes gladiator movies.
          The movie concerns a boy named Joey (Scott C. Kolden), who is obsessed with Marineland. He sneaks into the park so many times, marveling at the dolphin shows and fish tanks, that staffers know him by name. Seeking to cure Joey of his obsession, friendly marine biologist Dr. Jack Fredericks (Shatner) offers Joey a summer job as a part-time trainer, the idea being that Joey will tire of hard work and regular hours. Predictably, the plan backfires, because Joey bonds with Marineland workers and with a captive orca, despite myriad warnings from Fredericks that killer whales are dangerous.
          In one of the film’s most bizarre moments, Joey enjoys a lunch from McDonald’s—the film stops dead for a pointless scene of the kid purchasing his junkfood in real time—while the orca repeatedly leans out of its tank and tries to grab the food in its massive jaws. Or maybe the enormous mammal is trying to grab Joey. Either way, it’s played for laughs, and there are no adults around to protect Joey. Later, Joey’s Marineland friend Louie (Marty Allen), a portly fisherman, invites Joey to participate in a shark-hunting expedition. Naturally, that scene gets juiced with tacky music mimicking John Williams’ famous score for Jaws (1975). The takeaway is that the adults at Marineland are quite possibly the least responsible grown-ups in history, even though they’re portrayed as Joey’s happy-fun-time buddies, educating him with fun fish facts and teaching him the discipline of completing difficult tasks.
          Not every sequence of A Whale of a Tale is fraught with danger. Some are discomforting for a different reason. In one scene, Dr. Fredericks invites Joey to help him manipulate the tentacles of an octopus while the animal is massaged out of a stupor following transportation inside an icepack. The image of Shatner guiding Joey’s hands in the proper technique of stroking slimy suction cups is just as unintentionally suggestive as it sounds, especially since Shatner and young Kolden are the only actors present in the scene. But it’s all okay, apparently, because Dr. Frederick’s only romantic designs are on Joey’s single mom.
          Anyway, the movie wanders into truly uncharted territory during the finale, which makes zero sense. Joey gets the wrong impression that his aunt has come to Marineland with a mind toward removing him from his beloved job, so he steals a boat and flees into the ocean. Dr. Fredericks leads the ensuing search, and he authorizes the use of a trained dolphin to retrieve Joey, even though it’s possible the dolphin may simply swim out to sea and never return. The dolphin finds Joey, lets Joey throw a lasso around its neck, and then leads Joey back to safety. So on top of everything else, the title of this picture is misleading, since the crux of the story isn’t the orca bonding but rather the usual Flipper business of a finny savior. Call it a case of cinematic water on the brain.
          Oh, and here’s a tidbit for trivia buffs: A Whale of a Tale contains the only movie score ever composed by Jonathan Cain, keyboardist of the rock band Journey. Suffice to say there’s nothing here on the order of “Open Arms.”   
A Whale of a Tale: FREAKY


Bob Johns said...

Oh come on,(said with a smile) "Don't Stop Believin" (said with a silly grin)

Joe Martino said...

One can never have too much Marty Allen in a movie -- or can you?