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Phantom of the Megaplex (2000)

     directed by Blair Treu

          starring Taylor Handley, Rich Hutchman, and Mickey Rooney

You know, I didn't really expect much out of this. Disney Channel original movies don't exactly have the highest reputation for cinematic quality, and I was pretty much resigned, going into it, to the fact that I was probably going to want my 89 minutes back. But, you know, it wasn't all that bad. In fact, parts of it really entertained me. Other parts were, of course, kind of terrible, but we can't have everything in life.


We start out over the credits with Bach's Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor, easily one of the most widely-recognized organ pieces of all time (and one of the ones most frequently used to foster a spooky atmosphere for horror stories). It's a nice touch, since the Phantom in this particular film won't have much to do with organ-playing (in fact, organ-playing will be mentioned only once more in the entire film). Fans of the Phantom story will probably be delighted to see that the first thing that we see are clips from the famous unmasking scene of the classic 1925 Julian/Chaney film, which are used to great effect as a voiceover from Handley tells us about the history of the old movie theatre in which the film is set.


Because (as the title suggests) this film is set in a movie theater, I was expecting a lot of the original ideas about art and its power and transcendence to fall a bit by the wayside, and I should be chastised for that. Yes, some of those ideas did get pushed to the background, but Treu adroitly manages to substitute a message concerning the art of cinema and, if it's a little bit heavy-handed so that the kiddies can pick up on it, it's still praise-worthy that it was included.


A brief history lesson for the audience, all laid over continuing footage of the Julian/Chaney unmasking scene, informs us that the theatre was opened in 1925, and its first show was none other than the Julian/Chaney film itself, which did a rousing box-office business during its long run. The nod to film history is laced with a real sense of nostalgia for the movie-making days of old. In keeping with the nostalgic feeling fostered here, the theater was eventually demolished and rebuilt as the sparkling new megaplex in which the story is set; rumors that an extremely devoted fan was killed in the demolition of the old theatre and that he haunts the corridors of the new one set up the usual Phantom haunting conceit (and, interestingly enough, bring it back to its roots as the idea is of a ghost haunting, rather than an unwelcome living tenant). The workers at the new theatre are, as in Leroux's novel, prone to blaming the Phantom whenever something goes wrong, but few of them actually believe in his existence.


A few things about this setup recall previous Phantom films, most notably the 1979 Savage/Joboulian film and the 1988 Plone/Sussman film, which were both set in modern theatres, and the 1998 D'Amato/Perry film, which also used footage from the 1925 film in its opening sequence. The latter two films really don't seem to have much actual influence here (though the irony of Phantom being an inspiration for a squeaky-clean Disney Channel movie would have been pretty funny), but other parallels with The Meateater will emerge over time. Not something you would have expected, huh?


Now, the setup is great, but we're going to start to run into the problems that I was expecting from the beginning. A long sequence involving introducing each character bullet-style, complete with assigning them an excessively twee little nickname that will not actually be used for them in the film itself, is tedious and annoying; while the fact that the characters are basically larger-than-life caricatures can be excused in the context of a movie intended for children, the smug sloppiness of the introduction is grating no matter how you look at it. The fact that so much time is lavished on the ridiculous nicknames assigned these kids is especially tooth-grinding, since no one ever refers to them by those names. Ever.


However, the character of old man Mason is now introduced, and three cheers! It's Mickey Rooney! True, little Huck Finn is looking more than a little bit old and bewildered, but he's by far the acting highlight of the film, and his character is fittingly used as a vehicle for most of the commentary involving the long legacy of cinematic art and movie-going joy. And also, he's small, white-haired, and perpetually clueless-looking, all of which makes him adorable to watch. Mason is the last living member of the family that used to own the old theater before it was demolished, and such is his love of the theatre and the cinematic arts that he spends all of his time in the new theater, helping to run it despite the fact that he has never been hired, no one pays him, and the manager is habitually rude and obnoxious to him. He's something of a Madame Giry figure in that he is a custodian of the theatre itself, but the parallel is a weak one since he doesn't believe in a ghost and probably wouldn't endorse it if he did.


(Before anyone starts shouting about a parallel between this and the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film, I, too, was concerned that the Phantom was going to turn out to be Mason's lost but not quite dead brother, haunting the area out of a misplaced love of the movies. This did not turn out to be the case, and there is no twin conceit here. However, this film does bring Phantom of Hollywood to mind in that they both deal with the idea of a bygone era of magical filmmaking; where Levitt's film ended on a very heavy note of finality and despair, however, this one is hopeful when dealing with the idea of the legacy of cinema.)


The main character, Pete, is the assistant manager at the megaplex, and takes this job ridiculously seriously for a 17-year-old (SO seriously, in fact, that I'm inclined to roll my eyes at him every time he takes off on a long, impassioned speech about how much his job means to him. I was seventeen once, dude. You are not convincing me). As is par for the course in a Disney film, he also has two younger siblings, Brian and Karen, who factor heavily into the action with their witty (?) problem-solving and hilarious (?) banter. A minor side plot is present, involving Pete's mother and her boyfriend, whom the entire family is hoping will pop the question soon; while it is a lukewarm subplot at best, Corinne Bohrer does a fine job playing the mother, particularly when she's correcting her obnoxious offspring's grammar.


The main plot point of the film is that, due to industry connections, a new film called Midnight Madness will be having its Hollywood-style world premiere at the megaplex, prompting all the employees to run around like chickens with their heads cut off while the manager bellows about perfection, stress, and uniform-issue bow ties. The hectic preparations for the event are fairly entertaining, but the foreshadowing is less than subtle - particularly when the employees discover that someone (they assume the manager) has already hung the large balloon display over the entrance door and make large note of it before wandering on their merry way. The balloons, as a matter of fact, will be taking the place of the chandelier in Leroux's original story, much as the decorative contraption in the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film did.


In between bouts of the manager (Shawn, a painfully obsequious little man with aspirations toward the general manager position) being a grade-A asshole to Mason for no discernible reason (yeah, he doesn't work here, but he's harmless local color whom all the movie-goers seem to love, so what's your problem?), the old man excitedly tries to bring up a proposal he'd made for adding an organ to at least one of the theaters. Of course, the organ itself is another hat-tip to the original Phantom, but I was delighted to see the idea of the theater organist mentioned in a modern kids' film. When silent films were in their heyday, it was common practice for an organist or pianist to play live music as a sort of impromptu score to the film, making each movie also a performance, and each experience unique since organists seldom played exactly the same music each time. When the "talkies" were invented and films began to have their own soundtracks, the practice fell out of favor and gradually disappeared, but it's a great piece of film history, and especially worth noting because the original 1925 Julian/Chaney film would have been commonly presented in just such a manner.


Due to the flakiness of his employees (what? Teenage movie workers not showing up when you tell them that they're in for a hellishly overworked night with no dinner break? Say it ain't so!), Shawn is eventually forced to temporarily "employ" Mason (not that he plans to pay him, even now) as an usher in order to keep the massive influx of customers moving. Shawn's actor, Rich Hutchman, is less than spellbinding, but Mason's proud spiel about his honored feelings at being chosen makes the scene worthwhile. As does his assertion, midway through said speech, that he was once the head usher at a "palace of burlesque"... bet that joke flew over the heads of every child in the audience.


Frankly, by this point, the constant abuse of Mason is wearing pretty thin; I know that Treu wants him set up as a misunderstood character who deserves better treatment, but after all the completely unfounded assery and plain socially unacceptable behavior on Shawn's part, I really needed to see a serious moral about respecting one's elders presented, if for no other reason than not to encourage the kids watching this movie to behave similarly. As comedy, abuse of the elderly kind of sucks. The end of the film didn't really address this concern, but they did tie Mason so heavily into the idea that the history of film is one of magic and art that he is sort of exonerated by association.


To be perfectly honest, after listening to Pete whine about this girl he's had a crush on for years, I was deeply unimpressed when she finally arrived onscreen. She doesn't seem to know why she's in this movie, Pete spends a gargantuan amount of his screentime not talking to her or in any way showing us that he likes her, and she has no personality whatsoever, existing pretty much entirely to provide a little romantic tension when Pete's mother and her flame aren't involved in the action. Come on, Pete. She's not going to be interested just because you pine somewhere in the same building.


Unsurprisingly to most fans of the story, things begin to go wrong on the night of the premiere; objects and people go missing, computers and electrical systems fail, inexplicable booby traps begin appearing, and Pete, owner of the requisite amount of teenage angst, is forced to ignore his crush in order to put out fires all night. Some of these scenes are more believable than others. The projectionist having to spend half an hour fixing a computer terminal that's been hacked to damage the way the film is being projected? Yeah, sure, okay. Pete cleaning up a massive candy spill by using a hockey stick to shoot all the candy into a sideways trash can? Uh, no. Not only is that impressively inefficient and probably creating as much mess as it removes, but the potential for injuring someone as hockey sticks and hard candies fly is staggering. (Of course, I don't have much trouble believing that a tired teenage theater employee would try that, though.)


One of the running conceits when it comes to Brian and Karen is that they watch a huge number of movies, and are prone to quoting them whenever they feel their sage advice is required. This is annoying enough, but what's really confusing is how many dramas and romantic comedies these approximately eight- and eleven-year-old kids are watching. When I was eight, I didn't give a shit about Sleepless in Seattle, I can tell you that.


There's little enough evidence despite the persistent malfunctions so far, but Pete's siblings are convinced that the fabled Phantom is behind the theatre's woes, and this is finally confirmed when we begin hearing things like ghostly bass laughter in the halls, seeing things like glowing eyes peering through a promotional cardboard cut-outs, and finally are presented with a black-cloaked man running around frightening people. Okay, then... a Phantom it is. It's worth noting, of course, that this is one of those haunting-only Phantom as there is no Christine figure for him to fixate on and thus no romantic part to his plot. In this dimension, this film is again reminiscent of the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film, though it's done better by not throwing in a total waste of airtime substitute.


It's not surprising in this film that we see parts of several films as characters watch them or duck in and out of theatres. The meta-commentary in these films is cute, since they always seem to be commenting, usually tongue-in-cheek, on the action playing out between the characters in the theater.


After finding Shawn tied up in the basement and freeing him, Pete and company find that things are only worsening. The movie customers are understandably upset as popcorn machines explode and escalators reverse directions on a whim, and time is counting down until the director and lead actors of the premiering film arrive. In their quest to discover what the Phantom is up to and ultimately stop him, the kids find that the mischief matches the title of the film in each theater in which it occurs - that is, a huge fan is turned on the audience watching Cyclone, while the lights continually malfunction over the audience trying to watch Cut to Black. While much of this is silliness - trust me, I've been around those industrial fans, and while they blow hard, they don't blow that hard at that size) - it's still a cute idea, and allows the audience to follow along in the guessing game that the characters are playing.


In a cut off to Pete's mother and her boyfriend, who are having issues on their date, a weird and bizarre potting metaphor comes out of left field in order to enable them to discuss whether or not they should get married. I'm not sure it's clear enough for kids, who may or may not understand what all this business about "repotting" plants in larger pots together and how they may not be able to "properly consolidate roots" is in reference to. Oh, well. At least it doesn't last long. Boyfriend expresses some concern that he doesn't believe he's ready to be transplanted, mom mopes a bit, back to the theatre we go.


In their continuing quest to snoop, Brian and Karen manage to make their way into the megaplex's basement, where they discover a storage room that is a veritable treasure trove of old movie paraphernalia and promotional material. It's very obviously a nod to Erik's original underground house, and the landscape of props and posters brings to mind several previous Phantom films, including the 1998 Argento/Sands movie, the 1990 Richardson/Dance miniseries, and the 1925 Julian/Chaney film. The kids, having recently seen the mysteriously cloaked figure, panic when they find that someone has set up a sort of dressing room/living space down here with posters from the 1925 film and photographs of Lon Chaney in his infamous makeup, and are understandably jumpy when Mason (who else) discovers them in his secret hideaway. Of course, when they tremulously ask the old man if he is in fact the Phantom, he simply looks sad and explains that he is not, which leaves the audience guessing again. As a side note, someone on the production team, perhaps Treu himself, has as much love for that 1925 film as Mason does; the camerawork when it comes to shots including elements from the film is great, and the many details say that someone is nurturing some nostalgia of their own.


As Mason, Rooney delivers a speech which is by far the best-written part of the film, wherein he talks about how much he loves cinema because of its power to evoke emotions and wonder in audiences, to create new worlds of escapism that make the real world seem all the more vibrant because of it. It's very touching and again calls to mind the 1974 Levitt/Cassidy film, though again the tone is more one of joy than of mourning, since Mason doesn't approve of the preponderance of modern movie schlock but still believes that good art is being made in the medium. He references many an old film here that modern child audiences may not have seen in their original forms - The Wizard of Oz and Miracle on 34th Street are just two - but one hopes that the glowing praise and starry eyes with which Mason delivers it may inspire some kids to investigate.


Then it's back to the world of unnecessary over-the-topness, in which Pete meets and is borderline assaulted by the agent for the movie stars that are supposed to be attending the premiere. Her hissy fit over being forced to wait outside may be legitimate, but the fact that she intentionally tries to crush a seventeen-year-old's hand in pique and offers him (a kid who is obviously not in charge) multiple ultimatums pushes it over the line into unrealistic silliness. There's no reason for her to be such a strong antagonist, even in a film that relies on caricature to make its characters interesting.


Having put together the clues concerning the Phantom using the plots and titles of the movies as inspiration for his pranks, the kids rush off to the internet to discover what the much-lauded but still mostly-secret Midnight Mayhem might be about. I'm confused as to how a seventeen-year-old has no idea what spoiler sites are, but apparently Pete is just not very internet-savvy and must rely on his siblings to point the way. On their way, they discover Shawn, once again knocked out and restrained, and free him a second time so that he can rush out to meet the director, the investor, and the movie stars before epic drama ensues.


Epic drama ensues a minute later, anyway, as the balloon decoration above the door predictably falls on everybody. Really? Nobody could tell that those were water balloons and not air balloons? They look, you know... different.


But that annoyance is forgotten because, a minute later, Mickey Rooney is wandering cheerfully up and down the red carpet singing "Hooray for Hollywood" from the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel, and there's no way to be annoyed while that's happening. It's an absolute treat, as is Mason scoring hottie movie star Larissa Gomes as his escort to the premiere when she swoops down and rescues the old man from Shawn's once again determined attempts to browbeat his enthusiasm into submission.


We haven't seen the Phantom's mask up to this point due to him always being a fleeing figure in a black cloak, but we see it now and it's a metallic, flat-faced affair, one that reminds me a bit, again, of the one in the D'Amato film (though I still doubt strongly that film has any influence here). While his increased face time in this scene, wherein he accosts Pete and his siblings on the roof (hey! It's an Apollo's Lyre parallel!), does allow us to peg him as a large, wide-shouldered person, the utter ridiculousness of his trying the three children together inside a large sheet is pretty painful. Again, textbook Disney, but still pretty painful. The ensuing scene in which they must cooperate to walk blindly over to a pipe and saw their hands free is no better, since I can't imagine those bonds being so tight that the scrawny eight-year-old can't slip out from between his siblings.


The Phantom manages somehow (how is never explained) to steal a truly enormous inflatable monster from the roof of the theatre and hook it up to a pump in the Midnight Madness theater, causing an inflatable T-Rex to suddenly begin taking shape and filling the entire theater while the audience begins to panic and flail for an exit. Considering that the monster is a commonly-known element of the film they are about to see and that they are at a large premiere, I was not convinced by the sudden panic, since the whole affair looks like nothing so much as a publicity stunt. Things continue to be sigh-worthy as Pete yanks the sword out of the stone (yes, the theatre apparently has a sword-in-the-stone contest out in the front lobby, the winner of which gets free tickets, which seems to me like the best possible way to give out free tickets and have to repair a broken sword-in-the-stone) and leaps onto the air-filled beastie, stabbing it until it "dies" and deflates all over everyone. I was hoping that the use of the sword was on purpose in order to convince everyone that this really was a publicity stunt (Pete! I was so hoping that you were clever!), but, alas, it appears that nobody even tries that angle and that Pete is just not resourceful to find any other sharp object in the theatre with which to puncture the monster.


The action continues as the Phantom himself swings Tarzan-like by and Pete chases him behind the screen, where they have a rousing round of struggling and fisticuffs in backlit shadow while the audience and owners of the theatre watch in rapt attention instead of, you know, helping, or calling the police (now they think it's a publicity thing?). This device was used for the hanged man in the 1979 Savage/Joboulian film, but I doubt that the parallels between that film and this mean anything; they all seem to be fairly common devices that one would use in a movie theatre-based version of the story, so it's hard to extrapolate a solid connection.


Viewers will be unsurprised to discover that the Phantom is Shawn, who is throwing a hissy because he's learned that the coveted general manager position is going to be taken away from him because of nepotism and given to the owner's nephew. His whiny speech about how mean the owner is (well, he IS, but that doesn't really render any of these acts of theater terrorism okay) doesn't exactly exonerate him, and since he's really just a misguided character rather than an evil one, there's no redemption idea here (nor really any ostracization one, since he's a regular guy in most respects). In fact, he even gets a movie deal out of the whole situation, which is again silly but which at least passes quickly.


Then everyone's off to watch the premiere; Pete's mom shows up with her boyfriend, who changes his mind about potted plants and proposes, and then they all head off to watch the movie while Pete's girlfriend looks disgruntled at his insistence that they bring his younger siblings along (I probably would, too, on a first date).


It's nothing special as a film; it's got some good ideas, and nothing is spectacularly bad, but mostly it just coasts along on the same comfortable Disney childrens' movie formulas. As a result, I was neither annoyed nor particularly joyous about watching it, and the entire experience would have been totally forgettable if not for Mickey Rooney and his adorable antics. The parallels between this and previous films, particularly the homage to the 1925 Julian/Chaney film, are interesting, but ultimately it's a nice enough but thoroughly unspecial interpretation.

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