Unsung Anniversaries #2: Blank Check

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Welcome back to Unsung Anniversaries, where every week we look back on films celebrating birthdays that might not be getting widely recognized.

This week, one film attempts to answer the age old thought experiment “What’s the ethical thing to do when someone hands you a blank check?” The answer that you come to might not necessarily be right or wrong in an ethical sense, but hopefully you wouldn’t use any of your ill gotten gains to go ahead and produce…

Blank Check

Release Date: February 11th, 1994 (20th anniversary)

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Opening Weekend Box Office: $5.4 million (#3, 1,698 screens)

Other noteable films opening that weekend: The Alec Baldwin/Kim Basinger remake of The Getaway (which debuted at #2) and the completely unnecessary sequel, My Girl 2 (which debuted at #4). They all finished well behind Ace Ventura: Pet Detective in its second week atop the box office. They all finished ahead of the #6 film, Schindler’s List.

Days in theatrical release: 136 (pulled from theatres on June 24th)

Final domestic box office take: $29.7 million

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Estimated budget: $13 million

How I remember first seeing Blank Check:

Pretty sure I coaxed my mother into taking me just so I could get out of the house on a snow day from school. I remember being entertained, but not really impressed enough to ever watch it or think about it ever again.

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The re-examination:

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Blank Check is a weird movie, guys. Really, really weird. But not in any way that could be seen as fun or entertaining. It’s actually a benchmark example of just how weird the 90s were for Walt Disney Studios as a whole.

While a watershed decade for Walt Disney animation (Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, the emergence of Pixar), their live action branches were left spinning their wheels. Their previously strong Touchstone brand for the adult crowd wasn’t yielding the hits that they produced in the 1980s at any sort of game changing rate for the company. Ditto Touchstone’s embarrassing younger sibling Hollywood Pictures, which was about to slowly (and with the release of the Super Mario Brothers movie, very loudly) spin itself into eventual obsolescence.

That’s to say nothing of the division of Walt Disney itself that catered to live action family fare, which by 1994 was starting to experience a bit of an identity crisis. 1991 was a particularly bad year for the studio with “old school” themed live action flicks White Fang, Shipwrecked, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, and most notably the costly and exceptional The Rocketeer all underperforming terribly (with only White Fang doing well enough on home video and TV to spark a sequel several years later). 1992 started off with the costly musical dud Newsies (which has since found its renaissance, but was an almost embarrassing financial blow in the moment) and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid, an inferior sequel to 1989’s surprise smash Honey, I Shrunk the Kids that almost no one cared about or even enjoyed all that much. The streak would be broken by the almost out of nowhere crowd pleasing hit The Mighty Ducks in October of 1992 – a film that the studio had so little faith in because it centred around hockey that the idea was long being floated to just send it straight to video. It was a successful anomaly that would somehow be run into the ground throughout the remainder of the decade, but at least it eventually led to the real life franchise it spawned winning a Stanley Cup.

The point is that pre-Mighty Ducks, there was a clear and obvious template Disney live action picture: about 80% of them were always survival based film, whether it was a comedy, fantasy or drama. A young person/beast/whatever up against an impossible task or impossible odds usually took centre stage. It was almost always about the individual or close knit siblings, and hardly ever about groups triumphing together in the face of adversity. There are exceptions, of course, but it’s not hard to see similar themes cropping up in the Witch Mountain and Shaggy Dog franchises that won’t show up again later in something like Return to Oz or Benji the Hunted. It was always the same kind of “person under stress” kind of narrative. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it failed terribly. It was classic Screenwriting 101: everyone has to overcome something and do it in the most heartwarming way possible to teach youngsters life lessons.

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But even more so than the shift caused by The Mighty Ducks in terms of the studio’s future direction, another film from a different studio had an inarguably bigger impact not only on Disney, but on the industry as a whole. That movie was the John Hughes penned and Chris Columbus directed blockbuster Home Alone.

You didn’t have to tell anyone at Disney just how large the impact Home Alone had on the box office. It destroyed their costly animated sequel The Rescuers Down Under, which was released on the same day in 1990 (it also got beaten at the box office by two other sequels opening that weekend: the inexplicable Rocky V and slasher movie Child’s Play 2). With the Home Alone juggernaut too strong to ever compete in the family market, then Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg made the unprecedented move to simply give up, pulling all second week advertising for the film from radio and television and putting that money back into stronger projects like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin that were already in production.

Suddenly, Kevin McCallister was the kid every suburban youth wanted to be: brash, brainy, self-sufficient, and bad ass. It was officially the 90s and Macaulay Culkin had become the poster child for what was to come. Every pre-teen hero from this point on was to be as in-your-face, edgy, and proactive as possible. It posed a conundrum for a studio like Disney who was previously never any of those things.

Instead of sitting down and thinking out rational ways to repackage their product or to rebrand themselves – something that would happen almost immediately in today’s world if something like this was to happen again – Disney went into full on schizophrenia. Sure, there were still the survival movies coming here and there (A Far Off Place, Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale, um, Operation Dumbo Drop), but now there were also an awful lot of sports movies (2 Mighty Ducks sequels, The Big Green, Cool Runnings, the Angels in the Outfield reboot). (Further side note because this site doesn’t like to do footnotes: Iron Will, which is the best of any film mentioned in this paragraph straddles both of these criteria very nicely. Also worth noting and the second best film mentioned in this paragraph, Heavyweights, straddles the team building side of things with what I am about to get into.)

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To their slight credit, Disney didn’t go headlong into creating Home Alone knockoffs like many other studios did. They dipped their toes into it by producing the slightly naughty and risqué kids vs. witches romp Hocus Pocus and by injecting their remounting of The Three Musketeers with dashes of slapstick comedy and rad-itude. But with the four full years too late Blank Check, someone at Disney simply waved the white flag and gave in to what the marketplace seemingly wanted. And while the film was a modest return on a modest investment, they were still horribly wrong.

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In the film, former child star and Family Ties actor Brian Bonsall plays 11 year old Indiana kid Preston Waters. He’s your typical underappreciated smartass, with a father (James Rebhorn) who prefers Preston’s bullying older brothers to his youngest simply because they have jobs. The last I checked, an 11 year old couldn’t actually have a job in 1994, but whatever. One day, Preston’s bike gets hit by an escaped convict (Miguel Ferrer) who recently retrieved a hidden million dollar bounty from a previous score. Eager to not make a scene, the crook leaves Preston with a check that has only a signature on it and no dollar value to pay for the damaged bike. Pissed by his father’s flat out refusal to get him a new bike for an accident that wasn’t his fault, Preston fills out the check for a million dollars and naively sets out to cash it. The bank manager (Michael Lerner) was actually expecting one of the crook’s unknown emissaries to claim a million in clean bills for the dirty, marked bills that were being laundered, so naturally without batting an eyelash, the guy gives Preston a million in cash. He buys a literal castle in his neighbourhood (at the bargain basement price of $300,000 which doesn’t even make sense in 90s math), hires a wise cracking limo driver (Canadian stand-up Rick Ducommun, who might be showing up in the column again in the very near future), woos a damned near thirty year old bank teller-slash-undercover FBI agent (former MTV VJ and model Karen Duffy), and generally lives it up till the money runs dry and the bad guys come to collect (including rapper Tone Loc, who was quite the figure in many a cheaply made 90s family flick).

It all starts off quite jarringly like an action flick with Ferrer’s escape, and immediately something feels more than a little off. It’s already something that will continue to seem shot and edited like a music video and only gets worse with every passing montage and overblown moment of false dramatics. It looks pretty great, though. Probably because it was shot by Bill Pope, who would go on to be the cinematographer for The Matrix films, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, and Spider-man 2. He’s the film’s only true saving grace next to Duffy’s yeoman like work to keep a straight face while turning slowly into a pedophile the audience is supposed to sympathize with. I also like to think it was the good memories of this film that made him direct the similarly ludicrous wish fulfilment fantasy exhibited in Drake’s “Hold on, We’re Going Home” video.

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From there it settles into something so lazy that the pitch must have just said “How can we do Home Alone, but still have the parents there?” Then a few seconds later that must have felt like an eternity later, someone just piped up and said, “I dunno, give the kid a bunch of money?” Bonsall gets bullied to an irrational degree by backhandedly materialistic parents who don’t realize their kid isn’t even really a teenager yet, and once he comes into money he starts filling his dream home with all the toys and useless crap his parents would never dream of getting for him. In a matter of moments, Preston goes from a kid with realistic goals (just wanting a new bike) to a full on money fuelled psychopath. It’s that strange, jarring tone that makes the following mash-up trailer of this film and The Wolf of Wall Street so spot on. It’s a film where the only thing that can combat materialism is more materialism.

What makes the film so cloying is the very blandness of the kid at the centre of it. Bonsall doesn’t have all that much charisma or comedic chops. He’s simply a fresh faced every kid living out a pretty skewed and outlandish vision of what a childhood fantasy should be. As long as Preston can sigh, credibly look like he can work a computer, cutely bluff his way out of any rough situation, and allow his supporting cast to make him look sympathetic or likeable by comparison, his job is mostly done for him. It’s actually somewhat telling that Bonsall quit acting very shortly after this film was released to focus on playing in punk rocks bands in the Boulder, Colorado area. Bonsall has also since then become one of those child star tragedies, self diagnosed at one point as someone who is “bipolar and loves drugs,” and is constantly getting into scrapes with the law. It’s a shame because he certainly could have done better. The otherwise generic child slasher film from 1992, Mikey, boasts a great leading role for the young man and hints at a career that might have taken off had he gotten in touch with that inner darkness. Unfortunately, today he seems like a legitimately frightening dude.

Not to say that there isn’t an inner darkness to Blank Check just waiting to get out. It hints at a psychologically damaging relationship between a father and his son that never gets followed through on. The very notion that Preston finds a great deal of satisfaction in pursuing a woman over twice his age is certainly a sleazy touch. The near misses between Preston and his criminal pursuers hold a surprising amount of unease, mostly thanks to Ferrer’s consummate professionalism and his ongoing to this day ability to create something out of nothing. Even the film’s deliberate and shameless Home Alone rip-off conclusion carries with it a sensibility that mistakes meanness for a feeling that “bigger is better.” This similar problem would also mar the genuinely violent and unsettling climax of First Kid several years later, as well as have an impact on the Jonathan Taylor Thomas/Chevy Chase team up Man of the House.

Not that this film is smart enough to balance actual dramatic beats with genuinely funny jokes, not when music video director Rupert Wainwright (who would also direct Stigmata and the unnecessary reboot of The Fog) can pad his films with more zany shopping spree montages than there are training montages in a Rocky film. There’s actually maybe only 30 minutes of real story inside of Blank Check with the film becoming a bit of a Mobius strip. You can literally watch the producers throwing money at the screen with hopes that the problems go away. When watching a kid literally try to eat a trash bin full of ice cream in the back of a limo while surrounded by Sharper Image bags, one wonders if this wasn’t some kind of Brewster’s Millions type scenario where the producers had to spend as much money as humanly possible to get some sort of inheritance. It doesn’t always even seem like Preston is really even doing things that would be all that fun to an 11 year old. What kind of pre-teen takes 30 year olds out for fancy dinners and then frolics in a fountain with her in what feels like a cut scene from Cool as Ice? Absolutely none of them.

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Should we be celebrating it?: Nope. I know a handful of people who have a really misplaced sense of nostalgia for this one, but it’s honestly dreadful and not really in any kind of memorable way. I spent more time actually thinking about its place in the history of cinema than just how shitty of a film it was. It’s definitely best left forgotten.

UPDATED NOTE: No idea why I forgot to put this in there even though I knew about it, but Blank Check was co-written by late screenwriter Blake Snyder, who sadly passed away in 2009. Snyder is probably best known for the screenwriting bible Save the Cat! and its offshoots. He wrote precisely two movies in his lifetime: this one and STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT. Maybe this isn’t the man you aspiring screenwriters really want to emulate or take advice from.

Next week: I’m going over the fence and I’m not coming back until I find a dead body.

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