Love him or loathe him, but Jerry Lewis has made one great film amongst his often uneven creative output. Riffing on the classic horror tale Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde, his reimagining offered up mild mannered college professor Julius Kelp and his chemically induced alter ego Buddy Love. It represented the best the former nightclub comedian turned filmmaker had to offer. Thanks mostly to the cartoon style he explored with former animator (and frequent collaborator) Frank Tashlin and the public's unending appetite for his high brow take on low brow physical shtick, the resulting comedy remains a truly hilarious and funny film. Now, as Eddie Murphy (or someone representing his camp) plans to crap all over the classic by making yet another in the always unnecessary Klump sequels, Lewis himself is reprising his most famous character in the direct to DVD CG kid's film, conveniently titled The Nutty Professor. While it can never live up to the original, this generational take on the material is actually pretty decent.
As the resident nerd in his intolerant high school, Harold Kelp is a put upon geek. But when his grandfather Julius offers him the opportunity to attend a swanky, high tech boarding school, the little boy genius jumps at the chance. Soon, he's dealing with a roommate (and his alien buddy) who are into easy going electronica, a couple of jocked up bullies who belittle everyone, and an attractive girl who seems ever so slightly interested in Harold. Hoping to impress her with his BMX skills (the class project is to build, race, and win the annual school bike challenge), our hero fails miserably. But when he stumbles across his grandfather's experiment database, he learns of a formula that can make him cool, charismatic, and above all, coordinated. But the potion also unleashes his deepest, darkest fears, making Harold helpless to defeat them. It will take a group effort, including the use of Professor Kelp's latest invention, to ward off his grandson's growing doubts.
While it's never going to win any awards, and features the kind of science as slapstick routines that made Dexter's Laboratory and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius certified wee one hits, this version of The Nutty Professor is actually a whole lot of fun. It features wonderful voice acting from Lewis and a band of newbies (including Nick titan Drake Bell as Harold) and a pen and ink style which utilizes the best aspects of computer animation to create a clever, comic look. Certainly, there are elements that copy the previously mentioned cartoons (Harold has a robotic sidekick ala a certain savant's animatronic mutt) and the level of sophistication has to be dialed down significantly to help things remain as family friendly as possible. But with an ending that will keep the kiddies on the edge of their seat and enough visual invention to illustrate the best of what the genre has to offer, this is a welcome return to a comfortable, familiar concept.
One of the best elements here is the interaction between Bell, Lewis, and the rest of the cast. Instead of sounding like a group of people individually recording their parts into a secluded studio microphone (though, oddly enough, that's exactly how it was done), there is a real sense of camaraderie and chemistry between the actors. Bell doesn't try to imitate the well-known Kelp brogue (for example of how that sounds, see Professor Frink from The Simpsons), but he does do good goon. Lewis, on the other hand, does something quite brave. He lets his character age, never trying for the "Hey Lady" lunatic franticness of his youth. Even when Buddy Love makes a limited appearance, it's with a slightly older, more considered callousness. And since this is a film for the underage demo, there's none of the original film's hipster swagger. The closest we get to something like that is a fat kid and his alien cohort making synth pop out of incredibly complex musical instruments.
On the downside, the energy exhausted in pulling off the last act BMX race (truly dazzling for a limited budget CG effort) is lacking in the middle act material, and then the movie really goes gonzo by piling on the even larger in scope message/monster spectacle. It's a heightened ambition that director Paul Taylor (in his first feature film run) can barely manage. Also, the script from longtime Disney scribe Evan Spiliotopoulos could have been sharper. It tends to slide all over the place, from wonderful one-liners to dull as dog water he/she dialogue. The need to keep things within the tween target demo hurts the potential, but both men manage to make the most of the implied wholesomeness. Luckily, Lewis was on board to bring the kind of authenticity and satisfaction he found the first time around. Parents who are perturbed by the wealth of worthless kid vid product out there could do a heck of a lot worse than this 45 years in the making revisit. While minor at best, it's still a little gem.
Offered up by Genius Products and the Weinstein Company, the DVD of The Nutty Professor is nice, but nothing really special. The animation looks great, but the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is ordinary overall. The framing does a nice job of balancing as much animated information in as possible, and the "cinematic" look really helps support the film's frantic visual appeal. While the colors literally blast off the screen and the cartooning looks smooth and slick, this is no Pixar production. It's pretty good, nonetheless.
On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is actually pretty good. There is nice use of the back channels (especially during the last act BMX race and monster battle) and the genial score settles nicely within the speakers. The voice work comes across clear and crisp, and the resulting combination of dialogue, action, and music is balanced well.
Jerry Lewis himself appears in the EPK-like making-of material, the only major behind the scenes featurette offered here. The rest of the cast also shows up to express their amazement at working with the living legend, and some backstage footage illustrates how the actors worked with the material. The other bonus is a gallery of storyboards showcasing how the look and style of each character was conceived and modified. While nothing really remarkable, they help give some perspective on the creative process that went into this update.
While this critic has never been the staunchest fan of France's favorite adopted son (I reserve final judgment until I get a chance to see The Day the Clown Cried, dammit), I do love The Nutty Professor. It's so unlike any other movie made during the era, and is indicative of Lewis' outsized ambitions and the realization of same. So perhaps the rating of Highly Recommended reflects a wistful sense of nostalgia for the first time Lewis did Love, and the remarkable moment when the unctuous alter ego of Julius Kelp pleaded with the Purple Pit's resident "barroom brawler" before kicking his ass. But there is a lot to like about this amiable little entry into the entire Professor field. Jerry Lewis may be a genius to some, a jerk to many, and a lamentable figure in comedy to a chosen few. But his lasting legacy may just be this clumsy, klutzy character, and the many ways it remains viable to an ever-changing audience - including this enjoyable animated version.