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This pleasant and colorful comic fantasy mixes a number of elements not seen much in animated cartoons aimed at children, and comes out a nicely produced and surprisingly emotional little gem. Don Knotts is only himself for about twenty minutes, and for the rest of the show provides the voice for a bespectacled fish. The cartoons are integrated well with live-action, and the film benefits from some top animation talent.
Navy brass Harlock (Andrew Duggan) and George Stickel (Jack Weston) dig back into the WW2 secret files to prepare a special medal for the Navy's most secret weapon of the war: Henry Limpet. Flashback to 1941: Henry Limpet (Don Knotts) is a 4-F bookkeeper who annoys his wife by living almost entirely in the world of his aquarium. He makes a wish and unaccountably changes into a large fish with a pair of reading glasses. But instead of disappearing, Henry makes friends in the deep and resurfaces as a sub-finding protector of Allied shipping, a 'secret weapon' that the Navy eagerly exploits.
A trim and smart production, The Incredible Mr. Limpet has reached a certain status without anyone ever thinking to acclaimi it a classic. Its odd story stays light and cartoonish, which makes sense after seeing all the animation talent involved. Hawley Pratt, John Dunn, and Robert McKimson give conribute clean and stylish designs. Even the live-action has the tightly storyboarded feel of one of the later Warners cartoons.
For a kiddie cartoon-fest, this show is just plain weird. Walter Mitty-ish Henry Limpet is a literal fish out of water, a flop both as a man and a husband. If his pal George Stickel were any better looking, we'd immediately assume that wife Bessie was a-spawning behind Henry's back. His transformation into a talented fish is irrational and unexplained. Henry loves his new life, but his aquatic success story hides an unspoken melancholy streak. Henry Limpet is basically the hero of Kafka's Metamorphosis -- but, for kids, get it? No specific magic agent behind is Henry's wish coming true. When he makes final contact with his wife Bessie, he theorizes that maybe he was meant to be a fish all along, that the transformation simply corrected nature's error. That's awfully close to Kafka's, "Perhaps I'm not a man dreaming he's an insect, but an insect who dreamt that he was once a man." Nobody revisited this chilling idea again until Cronenberg's re-invented remake of The Fly in 1986.
The conventional episodes of The Incredible Mr. Limpet show Henry falling in love with a rather hot-to-trot Ladyfish, and making pals with the stock sidekick provided by a crusty Hermit Crab named Crusty (voiced by Paul Frees, natch). The tall fish tale that has Henry guide the Navy to wipe out a wolf pack of Nazi subs is not in bad taste, and is treated fairly seriously. The Navy stock footage clips are well intercut, and some of the animated underwater sub visuals equal the tank miniatures for realism.
But in 1964 we sheltered suburb kids (I was 12) were also impressed by the drama. Most of the kid stories I had seen had plots in which all troubling issues were resolved. The Disney fantasies in particular had very light conflicts, if anyÉ will Dad let me keep the puppy? Will That Darn Cat help catch the crooks? Real life might be invaded by fantasy, but the heroes were easily restored to their original condition, i.e., Wendy returns from NeverLand and Dorothy is not stuck forever in Oz. In The Incredible Mr. Limpet we loved Don Knotts, and it was frankly a bit traumatic when his separation crisis is never solved. Being a fish may be cool, but losing one's humanity permanently is something even a tot can understand. There's something to this show that's a bit creepy.
The late Don Knotts had already been in a handful of movies and was popular on the Andy Griffith Show, but he's introduced in the trailer for Limpet as 'that guy from TV'. He played a bit as a shoe salesman just before in a Doris Day movie, so it wasn't as if his career was on fire. Luckily, Knotts became a lowbrow sensation in a series of popular comedies about nerds going to the moon or stuck in a haunted house. He also made a late-career comeback in pictures like Pleasantville. Although Knotts does a supremely funny bit in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, I've never cared for his standard persona of high-strung jitters and exaggerated anxiety. This movie's Henry Limpet may be a little forlorn, but he has dignity and courage. Considering what we're doing to the oceans, I don't think we want to become fish like Henry. But he is obviously fulfilled.
Jack Weston and Andrew Duggan make the Navy subplot work by playing things absolutely seriously. Weston's platonic relationship with Mrs. Limpet is a bit strange, but he doesn't ham it up terribly as Buddy Hackett or Mickey Rooney might have, and we warm to him as much as we do Henry. The farewell scene is again odd for a children's film, with Henry asking George to 'take care of Bessie.' What kiddie film shows a man
Carole Cook has a vaudeville face and plays her role broadly. Yet when she learns that Henry is alive (sort of), her concern for him strikes some touching notes. Ms. Cook's brassy voice is so familiar I expected to see her named in the IMDB as vocal talent for earlier Warners cartoons, but apparently not. 1
Hanna-Barbera cut-price cartoons and Television in general had destroyed Warners' and MGM's fabulous animation departments years before. By 1960 the great talents were recycling cartoon ideas and farming themselves out to commercials, public service work and the occasional special project. Although mostly manned by former Warners talent, the supervising animator on Limpet was Vladimir Tytla, the genius who did fantastic work on Pinocchio, Fantasia and Dumbo before mostly disappearing into less visible venues. The Incredible Mr. Limpet is obviously budget work that sometimes achieves nice things through clever superimposed animation camera tricks - the interesting montages under the sea, etc. But Limpet's face, with its expressive eyes and a mouth that really seems to be speaking the dialogue, is masterful. When fish-Limpet talks to Bessie at the end, we get some really great acting, as if Tytla and company were channeling Don Knotts.
Sammy Fain and Harold Adamson's songs are okay, with their tune I Wish I Were a Fish memorable enough to carry the film's mysterioso angle. The music never takes wing yet is far better than what was heard in other non-Disney animated films of the time..
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Incredible Mr. Limpet gives this unusual family film an extra boost -- the colors are richer and the contrasting 'looks' of the live action and animation are even more attractive. Some real thought was given to the interaction between actors and cartoons -- in shots of Henry the Fish sticking his nose out of the water, he seems to be animated over some silver object operated like a hand puppet: when Henry ducks back down, we see something silvery recede under the water line, making a little splash.
Stock footage is used quite well -- images of destroyers cruising at sunset might be from the same source used for Mister Roberts. Twenty year-old B&W model footage from pictures like Action in the North Atlantic is tinted and used for views through submarine periscopes, etc.
Arthur Godfrey hosts the theatrical trailer, and an elaborate ballyhoo featurette is included (in excellent color) of a press junket to Weeki Wachi, Florida, for the movie's 'underwater premiere.' The late Don Knotts adds some sketchy introductory comments. When he talks about Ladyfish, he mentions the voiceover artist Elizabeth MacRae in such a way that makes us think he can't remember her, or never actually met her. The cute package image uses the clever key ad art showing Limpet and his fishy version staring at each other.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Incredible Mr. Limpet Blu-ray rates:
1. I know this is a stretch, but Limpet's situation, saying goodbye to his wife before he slips away into the great unknown, carries the same charge as scenes of fantastic events breaking up relationships in movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In fact, when Bessie gives Henry a new pair of glasses, Limpet looks very much like the friendly alien in CE3K, blinking its eyes in wonder. The confrontation of Bessie and the Limpet-fish also reminds me of Sci-fi movies in which wives find out that their husbands have been transformed or brain-transplanted into new bodies: Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, The Outer Limits' "The Architects of Fear".
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