If you’re a film buff like me, discovering movies I’ve never heard of is a joy. However, in the process of seeking out new cinematic experiences, sometimes you forget about the films you grew up watching. Having realized this in the past few months, I’ve decided to revisit one of my childhood favorites, “Harry and the Hendersons.”
After a fun-filled weekend of camping and hunting, George Henderson (John Lithgow), his wife Nancy (Melinda Dillon) and their children Ernie (Josh Rudoy) and Sarah (Margaret Langrick) make their way back to Seattle, only to accidentally run over the legendary Bigfoot (Kevin Peter Hall). Bringing him home, the Henderson’s fears turn to compassion for the surprisingly gentle beast. But with the authorities, not to mention crazed hunter Jacque LaFleur (David Suchet) looking for him, the Henderson’s work with renowned Bigfoot expert Dr. Wrightwood (Don Ameche) to return “Harry” to his rightful home before society gets their filthy paws on him.
For a 1987 comedy, “Harry and the Hendersons” is a rather sweet hearted piece of filmmaking and one of the best family films to come out of the decade. Much of the credit can go to William Dear, director and co-writer alongside William E. Martin and Ezra D. Rappaport. Forgoing the harder, cynical edge akin to the 1980s, Dear and his collaborators have crafted an emotionally powerful designed to pull on your heartstrings and make you genuinely care about Harry, who bears virtually no resemblance to the fanged, bloodthirsty beasts akin to such films as the pseudo-documentary “The Legend of Boggy Creek” and the crap-tastic Canadian horror film “The Untold.”
While Dear, Martin and Rappaport may have laid down the foundation for the character, much of Harry’s effectiveness can be credited to the actor, Kevin Peter Hall, and the makeup creator, Rick Baker. Standing 7’2” tall, Hall was certainly the right choice for the role from a physical standpoint, but is in his acting that he carves a niche for himself. Watching the film, it is clear that Hall is actually putting thought and creativity behind his performance, capturing Harry’s innocence, frustration and compassion equally well. For further proof of his acting talent, look no further than “Predator,” with Hall dominating and intimidating as the head-hunting title character.
While the name might not ring a bell, Rick Baker’s work is iconic. “An American Werewolf in London,” “Men in Black,” “Gremlins 2: The New Batch,” and “Star Wars” just to name a few. For all his work, Baker has thus far won six Oscars and reportedly considers “Harry and the Hendersons,” one of the six winners, to be one of his proudest accomplishments. One look at the suit and I can see why; not only does it look incredibly realistic, but the mechanical effects used to create Harry’s facial expressions are flawless, creating a visual image that, in my opinion, is far more effective than 90% of the digital effects from the past 10 to 15 years.
While the previously mentioned are the key players, everyone else brings their A-game to the film. Lithgow, one of the most underrated actors in the past 20 years, is perfect as the harried family man stuck in the most unusual of situations. To see him go from utter fear of Harry to genuine affection is emotionally satisfying. Dillon, Rudy and Langrick are fine with what they have to do, Ameche helps to ground the film in reality and Suchet provides camp laughs as the cruel Jacque.
In terms of flaws, the film has a few. For starters, the family’s change of heart towards Harry is initially a bit hard to swallow, especially given the massive damage he does to their house. Certain elements of the film, particularly the side characters and authority figures, are rather juvenile and detract from an otherwise intelligent film, while the sentimentality occasionally veers into campiness. It should also be noted that by family film, I refer to a film that both children and adults can watch and enjoy. With that in mind, the film does contain a considerable amount of profanity from most if not all of the characters, including Rudoy’s eight or nine year old character. While I find nothing wrong with it, parents may want to pre-screen the film and decide for themselves whether or not to show it to their children.
In conclusion, “Harry and the Hendersons” is a wonderful, heartwarming experience that is not to be missed. While part of my love might come from my childhood memories of sitting in the living room laughing incessantly for the nearly two hour running time over and over again, I tried to be objective upon revisiting the film for the first time in years. While I did identify some minor flaws, overall I found that the film more than lived up to my memories, sporting a solid cast, tight direction, impressive writing, and fantastic special effects, not to mention a great score by Bruce Broughton. I only hope that, if I am ever blessed with children, I can show them the films that I grew up with, and this one is definitely on the top of that list. Highly recommended.