Willy McBean And His Magic Machine

Director:Arthur Rankin Jr.                            
Larry Mann, Billie Richards, Alfie Scopp

Some movies will grab an instant audience, even if the general quality of the movie might not be that great. Animated movies are a good example of this. There are people who will seek out every animated movie that's made, even if they have heard innumerable bad reviews on movies like The Secret Of NIMH 2, The King And I, The Pebble And The Penguin(*), and The Princess And The Goblin. So I am sure that no matter what I'll say about Willy McBean And His Magic Machine, there will still be some people determined to watch it. Especially since this movie is from Rankin/Bass - a company not just famous for hand-drawn animation, but stop-motion TV animation efforts like Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town. (Besides this theatrical effort, they also made Mad Monster Party, which I haven't seen but I've heard has built up quite a cult following.) You might now be thinking that I found Wily McBean to be a terrible movie. It isn't, and I admit there were times where I was having a lot of fun watching it. But overall it doesn't quite make it, and most of its problems can be boiled down to this: It's dated.

When I say "dated", I don't just mean in one general aspect, but in different ways, some of which were even dated in 1965. Take the first song that plays during the opening credits. It's a listenable song, but it's sung in that dreamy style where both men and women were singing at the same time - it sounds like it was composed in the 1940s. After the song, we get our first look at the sculpting of the sets and figures as we fade into the castle of mad scientist Rasputin Von Rotten, gleefully planning the biggest scheme of his life. After seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas, what we see before us looks primitive in comparison. The floor of the castle - and the floor of almost every other area we're taken to in the movie - is flat, and one color. While the furnishings of the castle (bubbling beakers, bookshelves, etc.) are adequate, in general each place we are taken to is woefully lacking in furnishings. When Von Rotten starts moving around, the jerkiness of his movements sometimes is cruder than the general standard of Rankin/Bass' TV efforts, and this style of movement is found in the other characters that are subsequently introduced. Then there is the design of the characters. Most of the characters in the movie are designed in an overly cartoony way (big round heads, small bodies, etc.) This kind of style you don't see anymore in professional stop-motion animation, though I was able to accept this aspect as the general style of the movie, dated or not. Actually, Von Rotten himself is generally designed pretty well, with a thin, Vincent Price-like face and silver hair. The only problem is that his scowly look does not change when his character laughs in glee, and it's odd seeing someone looking quite grim laughing like he's having the time of his life.

Von Rotten is filled with glee, because his greatest invention has just been completed. Frustrated that his genius has not been recognized by the world, he plans to make a permanent mark on the world by using his new time machine. He plans to travel back to famous times in history and take the credit - for example, he plans to travel back to the time of King Tut and have his own monument constructed for Tut so that Tut won't get the idea to build the pyramids, and also be the one to pull out Excalibur from the stone before a wimpy King Arthur can pull it out to show the knights of his round table that he is not only a king but a mighty man just like them. Yeah yeah, I know - but that's what the movie claims these famous people did in our past.

His talking monkey Pablo escapes from his castle, taking with him not only the plans for the magic machine, but a list of the events in history he plans to change. Pablo happens upon Willie McBean, a boy who is a genius except for in the history department. After Pablo explains the situation, Willie reasons, "If he changed history, I'd have to learn it all over again!" and is motivated to stop him. Using the plans, he constructs his own magic machine, and travels back to various famous times in order to foil Von Rotten's plans. Pablo comes along as well, not only to help but to provide comic relief. Since Pablo was originally from South America, he wears a big hat and utters lines like, "How do you like them tamales?" or "I'm a big Latin lover!" in a Pancho accent straight out of The Cisco Kid - despite the fact that Von Rotten was the one that not only taught him to speak, but the English language. Along their journey, the two meet Native Americans who use the word "me" instead of "I" when speaking (at least they don't say "Ugh!") and Italian explorer Christopher Columbus who has an accent that has him uttering "That's-a..." or "It's-a..." on a regular basis. In the same sequence, Von Rotten dresses himself as a "Chinaman", complete with a Fu-Manchu mustache, to convince the China-seeking Columbus to take him on board. "In addition, I can cook a good won ton," he sings during his song number, in a stereotyped Chinese accent that sounds more like Peter Lorre than someone from China. Now, I realize that this was 35 years ago, and this material is never presented in a mean spirited way that suggests the production team was consciously racist, but it's still a bit uncomfortable to watch.

That "Chinaman" song isn't very good, and one or two other songs fall flat as well on their own terms, but otherwise the musical numbers in the movie are quite good. Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull are given a charming soft-shoe duet, Columbus gets to sing the catchy number "Ya Gotta Go West To Go East", and the King Arthur number "We're Knights Of The Round Table" may not be as memorable as the Monty Python song of the same name, but is still a lot of fun. The highlight is when Von Rotten gets his own song ("When all the great men are forgotten / And the pages of history books have changed / They'll remember the name of Rasputin Von Rotten / For the past I have all rearranged!") Von Rotten himself is the best thing about the movie. Though he's evil, it's almost a lovable kind of evil, and you actually sense this character's frustration of not being recognized. So much so, that despite his sneakiness and rotten behavior, sometimes I was hoping that he would succeed in his plans. The animators themselves seemed to have had fun with this character, for they put more effort into his animation, giving him actions like putting his cloaked arm up to his face a la Dracula or having him spin around in glee.

He actually isn't onscreen that much, though; most of the movie is focused on Willie McBean and Pablo exploring their new environments, meeting the famous characters, then Von Rotten finally pops up near the end of the segment to try and pull off his dirty scheme. And, like in many other movies, the protagonist is less entertaining than the antagonist. Willie McBean is said to be a child genius, but he generally thinks and acts like an ordinary little boy. He's not annoying or unwatchable, just... ordinary, almost to being bland. Occasionally he gets a funny one-liner, or a line that will make modern viewers think it in a different way than intended ("If Columbus hadn't discovered America, all that would be here would be trees and a few teepees!", but he doesn't have the spark to be made a more riveting hero.

It's up to Von Rotten and the other characters to entertain the audience, and, taking away the racial stereotypes, they actually manage to almost pull it off. These other characters are goofy and charming, and their actions and their song numbers boost the movie considerable. However, this boost only pushes the movie so far. I actually felt Willy McBean was worth a mild recommendation for about two thirds of the movie before it really started to fall apart. It was still holding up to that point despite several short sequences (the dragon, George Custer, and ancient Rome) that Willy is put through that do not contribute anything to the plot (Von Rotten has nothing to do with these sequences.) But by the time ancient Egypt and the prehistoric segments came in, it was starting to feel that I was more or less seeing the same particular stuff over and over again - not helped by the fact that these are the weakest moments in the movie, with dull songs and characters. So despite the charm it manages to generate, it's not enough to make it recommended. At least overall - as I said earlier, there is some material here that may make it of interest to particular viewers.

* For anyone else unfortunate to have seen this movie - did you notice in the scene when the hero penguin made his proposal near the end of the movie, his cap disappeared and reappeared on the top of his head in a span of a few seconds?

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See also: Barefoot Gen, The Last Unicorn, Star Kid