Film reviews and more since 2009

The Banana Splits Movie (2019) review

Dir. Danishka Esterhazy

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

If studios are going to bother resurrecting long dormant properties only a handful of people would even bother with today, like Top Cat, they might as well go the extra mile and be subversive with them. Such is the case with The Banana Splits Movie, which takes the forgettable sixties Hanna-Barbera kids show and turns it into a bloody, R-rated horror flick by making the quartet of costumed animals turn murderous. The idea itself is kitschy, but thanks to a seriously fascinating execution and a commitment to practical gore over computer wizardry, it would be a shame if we didn’t see more attempts to put creative spins on bygone shows in the future.

The Banana Splits Adventure Hour was nothing more than a lame-duck variety show comprised of four goofy animals “playing” instruments before a live studio audience. While the show featured performers in suits, director Danishka Esterhazy reimagines the characters — Fleegle, Drooper, Snorky, and Bingo — as animatronic characters reconfigured by a mad scientist. Set in the “Banana Splits” studio, which is nothing more than a poorly maintained warehouse in the backlot of Taft Studios, we drop in on what is revealed to be the last broadcast of The Banana Splits before its cancellation, and once the four animals get wind, their warm instincts are overtaken by a desire to murder everyone.

The story revolves around a young boy named Harley (Finlay Wotjak-Hissong), a huge fan of The Banana Splits, whose parents, Beth (Dani Kind) and Mitch (Steve Lund), graciously get tickets for the whole family to attend the taping. When they, including Harley’s shy, slacker older brother Austin (Romeo Carere), arrive, they are treated to the sights of Fleegle, Drooper, and the rest of the Splits on-stage while turmoil unfolds in the backroom. Andy (Daniel Fox), the VP of programming at Taft Studios, informs the show’s producer that in lieu of his promotion, he’ll be cancelling The Banana Splits; all this shortly after the mad scientist completes his dirty work and makes the Splits turn violent. It all begins with Drooper stuffing an oversized lollipop down his human co-star’s throat backstage, starting what will be a fairly large body-count.

Writers Jed Elinoff and Scott Thomas have a little fun by making other audience members out to be (believable) caricatures, from the narcissistic Instagram influencers to the opportunistic parent enjoying the show far more than their age-appropriate offspring. In addition, throughout the film exists some superb practical gore effects, with little to no CGI as far as I could tell. The bloodshed and ubiquity of other appendages look delightfully icky.

Moreover, animatronic figures always disturbed me. Since I was young, I’ve hated things that made noise when you trigger their motion sensor simply by being an unfortunate pedestrian, but was always particularly made uneasy by life-sized robots found at places like Chuck E. Cheese. Focusing on the Banana Splits themselves: I spent a good portion of this movie getting in my own head the more I thought about them. They are robots coded to commit harm but they never become fully autonomous like Chucky, where they can control their speech, much less feel any kind of emotion when committing murder. They’re not equipped to spout anything other than catchphrases they’d employ on the show, but the context in which many of the phrases are used, in conjunction with whatever horrifying acts they’re performing, are appropriate. It’s a very good creative decision that doesn’t turn the Banana Splits into openly vulgar menaces. This makes those murder sequences doubly disturbing. Like Killer Klowns from Outer Space, the film preys on your preexisting fears by turning a fuzzy slice of nostalgia into a blood-bathed nightmare. Kudos to Eric Bauza for some strong voice-work.

There is something mesmerizing and entirely unsettling about an animatronic dog hurling pies at two bloodied, burned victims as they try to navigate an obstacle course where the prize is living a few minutes longer.

By confining us to a singular setting — a large, convoluted one at that — Elinoff and Thomas get us lost in a maze of a multiple-level studio soundstage. Like the beloved toy-factory scene in Child’s Play 2, it’s an under-appreciated thing to spend so much time in a unique or unforeseen setting, and cinematographer Trevor Calverley turns it into a shadowy labyrinth of torture.

The Banana Splits Movie‘s macabre sense of humor, showcase of practical effects, and uniformly demented tone make it a relatively easy flick to recommend horror fans, many of whom will be too intrigued by the concept to pay any mind to what a stuffed-shirt critic says. This is one of the few times where I’d actually eagerly anticipate a sequel. There’s something to this formula amidst a culture that is rather lifelessly forcing old pop culture characters, no matter how irrelevant in the present, down our throats that a film like this feels like a coordinated, welcomed act of rebellion.

NOTE: As of this writing, The Banana Splits Movie is available to rent on multiple platforms.

Starring: Finlay Wotjak-Hissong, Dani Kind, Steve Lund, Romeo Carere, Naledi Majola, Sara Canning, and Daniel Fox. Voiced by: Eric Bauza. Directed by: Danishka Esterhazy.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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