Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Mickey Rooney Sends Your Kids To Cambodia

Friends. Aren't they the best?
Especially when they come is such fantastical packages as Christine Makepeace, the cofounder and keeper of Paracinema Magazine. I know I've praised this publication before and will do so until I get dragged away to a resting home, but if you're new here, trust me when I say there is no cinema magazine out there quite as passionate, unique, and intelligent as this little shiner here. 

But I digress. The reason I adore Ms. Makepeace today has nothing to do with her body of work and everything to do with the fact that for my karaoke spectacular birthday extravaganza, she not only rapped, but also gave me the Blu Ray for what might be my new co-favorite February film of all time (if Devil Times Five is willing to share, and I worry it's not). 

Treasure Train or The Odyssey of the Pacific or The Emperor of Peru or The Craziest Kid's Film Ever is, to be frank, a feat of creativity, bravery, drugs, irresponsibility, imagination, insanity, and a whole lot of Mickey Rooney encouraging children to labor in abandoned mines and run away to Cambodia. Now while Rooney plays the innocently wacky old hermit in the film, his actions are actually fairly harmful to the well-being of the three rugrats he befriends. Hence, he's kind of---what's this!--a Vertically Challenged Villain.
I mean, not one who kidnaps women and blushes his cheeks a la The Manipulator, but still...

Quick Plot: Toby and Liz are a charming(?) pair of siblings living in Victorian Canada with their wealthy aunt and uncle who respectively spend the day playing with toy trains or drinking martinis. One day, they bring home Hoang, a Cambodian refugee orphan (you know...like on television?) who will be summering with them until his adoption. Hoang would rather be planning his marriage to his far away (probably dead) mother.
No, you didn't misread that. When asked who he would like to marry, the 9 or so year old Hoang answers, without missing a beat, "My mom." He justifies it easily enough: “She is really pretty. Her mouth is soft and so red you know.” In a flashback, we hear him telling her how he dreams of crawling back inside her tummy so she could “pretend I’m your pet dog or cat.” I know you'd like to think I'm joking but come on guys, I'm not that funny. The movie ends (spoiler, not really) which Hoang heading back to Cambodia (by train) to find her. And marry her. And make me all sorts of uncomfortable.

But wait, you don't even know if Hoang befriended his foster siblings! Well he does, mostly because while their adult guardians feast on delectable meat and expressive red wine, the kids are skirted off to a table filled with bowls of dry white rice. Because dry white rice is generally not an exciting lunch, the three proceed to have a violent but giggle-filled rice fight, charming their wealthy drunk overlords.
Now that they've bonded, Liz, Toby and Hoang embark on daily adventures into the woods. This gives Toby plenty of time to fantasize about all the famous jobs he will eventually have, from being a race car champion to world famous surgeon. In all these pretty amazing dream sequences, Toby completes amazing feats such as saving Miss Superwoman (lamer than she sounds) while riding a futuristic hot cycle, an adventure that should make him more famous than Bert & Ernie, Joan of Arc, Tarzan, Caesar, Mickey Mouse, and Popeye (the comparisons are really important to Toby). 




Every time, director Fernando Arrabal cuts to stock stadium footage of roaring crowds. The really fantastic thing about these roaring crowds--aside from the fact that it might be the same stock footage often used in The Muppet Babies--is that if you look closely, you'll notice a good 33.333 repeating decimal point % of the extras are either not cheering, looking elsewhere, or clumsily trying to climb out of bleachers to presumably take a bathroom break.

Wait! I know I said that was the fantastic part, but I forgot something! Frederico!

Frederico is Toby's pet duck. Toby walks Frederico (who is his pet duck) on a leash and incorporates him in all his fantasies, which means we get to see a duck on a sports car sidecar. It's sort of like Ziggy on the second season of The Wire, but with less union corruption.

As great as Frederico is, he's not really the star of Treasure Train. That above-the-credits honor goes to Mickey Rooney, that 5'1 bundle of positive energy who can never be accused of not going for it. Rooney plays the (depending on your edition) titular Emperor of Peru, a retired train conductor (I think) now paralyzed below the legs (although those thighs do move when dancing) and living alone in the backwoods near an abandoned (and titular, depending on your edition) locomotive. The Emperor is about as crazy as The Manipulator, but with less kidnapping. He teaches the kids how trains work, mugs for the camera, and resists the local authorities attempts to move him to an old age home. Instead, The Emperor and his new subjects (aka children) move deeper into the woods where they meet three wandering clowns. 
No, seriously.
The clowns don't do much for the story, although they do serve an important expository role of telling young Toby where to find coal for the train. Where does one find coal for a train? Why, an abandoned mine of course!

There are two things we need to address here:
1. The idea that screenwriters Arrabel and Roger Lemelin needed to find an economical solution to the kids finding the mine. So they decided to have another character tell them about it. But then found a storage chest filled with soiled clown clothes and figured, hey, why not have it be a trio of hobo clowns? So it is.

2. There's a line in the astoundingly awful Nutcracker: The Untold Story where a young girl confidently tells the animated doll that she cannot fly. To which the nutcracker replies "How can you know if you've never tried?" As my responsible boyfriend so often points out, THIS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO SAY IN A CHILDREN'S MOVIE. Because no children not related to the director actually saw The Nutcracker: The Untold Story, we never had to read about lawsuits involving young fans leaping out windows in the hopes of landing with the Sugar Plum Fairies. 




Now Treasure Train--which is certainly worthy of being watched by elementary schoolers--doesn't commit quite a verbal crime, but having Mickey Rooney encourage 7-10-year-olds to crawl into an ABANDONED MINE in order to carry up coal is, I imagine, not the kind of example one would set for young ones.
There’s also a conversation between The Emperor and young Liz that goes as such:
Liz: I don’t smoke. It gives you cancer.
Emperor: That’s not true!

Bad enough, right? But it gets worse. The Emperor then convinces the children that it’s not smoking, but washing with soap and water that causes cancer. 

Seriously.
But not to be too hard on Treasure Train, because it does make a valiant effort to detail the atrocities experienced by Cambodia in the early twentieth century. The fairly well-adjusted Hoang experiences the occasional flashback to his homeland, like when playing with the Tarot card for The Hanged Man, he recalls pirates jumping on his refugee ship, grabbing a fellow child by the feet, and dangling him in front of the other kids with the threat of “Give me your gold or I’ll kill him!” Better is my favorite understatement of all time, as Hoang asks his fiancee/mother about his father and she answers as such:
“He’s in a concentration camp. He’ll be fiiiiiiiiiiiine.”
There’s also the weird sexually charged speech The Emperor makes about trains. “You’ll get all of your smoke all over my instruments. And you’d put soot all over me.” Okay, in writing that out, I realize it doesn’t SOUND sexual, but when coupled with the come hither look in Mickey ROoney’s sparkling eyes...I’m just saying, I felt uncomfortable.

I cannot bother breaking this movie into high and low points, because from beginning to end, it is simply an assortment of weird and weirder (all of which I find wonderful but you know, that’s me). This is a movie that has Mickey Rooney lording over a court of little people and llamas. There’s almost nothing left to say after that.

About That Ending...
Spoilers, obviously, but WHAT JUST HAPPENED? So the kids get the train to run--and no, it's not a fantasy as I assumed it would be--and they RIDE AWAY. The Emperor decides to stay behind--we have no real idea why, but I suspect because he actually dies in the last shot. 

Lessons Learned
In a multiple child house, it’s grades in piano lessons that determine who gets what bedroom
Never treat a model train the same way you would a flute
Just to reiterate, smoking does not give you cancer and it’s okay to gather coal from a long abandoned mine


Rent/Bury/Buy
Now restored by Odyssey Moving Images, Treasure Train--and yes, I've had to constantly edit myself to not write Terror Train--is a must-see for those who dig weird and obscure children's films. It was clearly modeled along the lines of Pippie Longstocking, but watching it today makes it feel almost akin to the infamous Mexican film Santa Claus, where Santa keeps children slaves who watch the world’s population via a 1984-esque computer spy network and Satan tries to lure poor kids into petty theft. This one will instead lure them down dangerous mines and lung cancer wards, but it’s done with a smile and really, isn’t that the best way to go?

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