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THE Incredible Mr. Limpet

The Incredible Mr. Limpet
Warner Home Video
1964 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9, + 1:37 flat / 102 min. / Street Date October 1, 2002 / $24.98
Starring Don Knotts, Carole Cook, Jack Weston, Andrew Duggan, Larry Keating, Oscar Beregi Jr., Charles Meredith, Elizabeth MacRae, Paul Frees
Cinematography Harold Stine
Production Designer Maurice Noble, Hawley Pratt
Art Direction LeRoy Deane
Film Editor Donald Tait
Original Music Frank Perkins
Written by Jameson Brewer, John C. Rose from a novel by Theodore Pratt
Produced by John C. Rose
Directed by Arthur Lubin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

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 but odd film that is surprisingly emotional. Don Knotts is only himself for about twenty minutes, and for the rest of the show becomes the voice for a bespectacled fish. The cartoons are well-mixed with live-action, and the film benefits from some top animation talent.


Navy brass Harlock (Andrew Duggan) and George Stickel (Jack Weston) go back into the WW2 secret files to prepare to present a special medal to the Navy's most secret weapon of the war: Henry Limpet. Flashback to 1941: A 4-F bookkeeper who annoys his wife by living almost entirely in the world of his aquarium, Henry Limpet (Don Knotts) makes a wish and unaccountably changes into a large fish with a pair of reading glasses. But instead of disappearing, he makes friends in the deep, and resurfaces as a sub-finding helper of Allied shipping, a 'secret weapon' that the Navy eagerly exploits.

A very smart production, The Incredible Mr. Limpet has reached a certain status without anyone's acclaiming 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 the film top production values with their clean and stylish designs, and 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, and there's a melancholy streak hidden behind his aquatic success story. Henry Limpet is basically the hero of Kafka's Metamorphosis - but, for kids, get it? There's no magic agent behind Henry's wish coming true, and when he makes final contact with his wife, 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 predictable parts of The Incredible Mr. Limpet have Henry fall in love with a rather hot-to-trot Ladyfish, and make 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 wolfpack 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 what we sheltered suburb kids (I was 12) were struck by was the drama. Most of the kid stories I had seen, especially the Disney fantasies, had plots that resolved all their issues. Real life might be invaded by fantasy, but the heroes were eventually returned to their original condition, i.e., Wendy gets back from NeverLand, Dorothy isn't stuck in Oz forever. 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.

Don Knotts had already been in a handful of movies, and was very 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's made a comeback recently in pictures like Pleasantville.

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 kiddie film, with Henry asking George to 'take care of Bessie.'

Carole Cook has a vaudeville face and plays her role broadly, but when she learns Henry's alive (sort of), she hits some very touching notes in her concern for him. Her brassy voice is so familiar I expected to see her named in the IMDB as vocal talent for earlier Warners cartoons, but apparently not.

Television, and Hanna-Barbera cutprice cartoons 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, with simple flat backgrounds that sometimes achieve 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 really get some great acting, as if Tytla and company were channeling Don Knotts.

The music score is only so-so, a failing that sank many animation attempts to rival Disney. The 'I wish I were a fish' song has potential, but never soars like the similar You Can Fly from Peter Pan.

Warner's The Incredible Mr. Limpet is a very handsome disc designed for kids and nostalgic adults like Savant. I smiled at the dumber stuff and was pulled into the same emotional state as back in 1964. The two-sided disc has flat and widescreen versions, and both are colorful and virtually flawless. Besides a strange trailer introduced by Arthur Godfrey, there's a featurette from '64 in pristine condition called Weekend at Weeki Wachi. It documents the ballyhoo 'underwater premiere' of the picture at a Florida resort. Knotts and the rest of the cast are there for what must have been an embarassment for all. A new, brief interview-introduction with Don Knotts is also on board, and it's pleasant even though the actor hasn't much to say. Two kiddie games are in the special menu, and there are said to be several more in a DVD-Rom PC function. The cute package art, repeating the original's comparison of Knotts to a fish, rounds out a very attractive presentation.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Incredible Mr. Limpet rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: featurette, Knotts intro, trailer, various kid games
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 31, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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