The Phantom Kid

Director: Peter Hammond  
Michael Tough, Susan Stacey, Jeremy Kaplan

I am pretty sure that with virtually every movie that has been made, the people behind the movies never intended their movie to be a bad movie. It takes a lot of long and hard work to make a movie, so I don't think anyone involved would invest much of their lives into making something bad. But all the same, bad movies get made all of the time. A number of these bad movies seem misguided, as if the filmmakers didn't understand what their audience was expecting. Well, I am here to tell you that after years of watching movies both for this web site and during my own private time, I have managed to determine what certain kinds of movies need in order to be successful. And since I am a generous kind of person, I now will freely reveal to the suits in Hollywood (or major powers in film in other countries) what the key ingredients are in several kinds of movies in order to make them successful. Are you making an action movie? Well, the key thing to do is... put in a lot of good action sequences! Get expert choreographers and directors, and have them build exciting action sequences. Are you making some kind of horror movie? Well, the key thing to do is... put in a lot of high quality horror material! Lots of blood and gore certainly helps a lot, but also getting the right kind of director, one that knows how to creep out his or her audience. Are you making some kind of soft core sex movie? All right! Well, the key thing to do in these movies is... put in a lot of good sexy scenes! Cast beautiful women who don't mind taking off their clothes a lot and will happily get in multiple sex sequences.

Of course, I am being somewhat tongue-in-cheek with what I said in the above paragraph. I am sure most filmmakers know what sellable ingredients are in certain kinds of movies, but circumstances and/or the lack of proper skills end up making a movie that falls short of expectations. I know it is more often than not very difficult to make any sort of marketable movie. In fact, there are some film genres that would confound me if I were invited to make a filmed example of one of them. One of these difficult genres is the family film. My tastes often seem quite different than the general audience for these films. I have seen family films that I liked, but the audience rejected them at the box office. And I have seen a lot of family movies that I hated, but the family audience loved. With my family film tastes being so different from those of the family pack, I don't have many clues as to what makes a popular family film. I do know that the "high class" family movie is more often than not rejected, movies like The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. I also know that when it comes to animated family movies, families almost always reject animated movies that have big science fiction elements to them, movies like Treasure Planet and Astro Boy. As you can see, I have some idea as to what not to do, but when it comes to what definitely to do, I don't have many clues. The only key ingredient I know that's needed for a family movie to succeed is good marketing, marketing that excites the child and makes the child beg his or her parents to please take them to the movie. Bad marketing can really sink even the most lavish movie. For example, when the movie Jack The Giant Slayer was preparing to be released in theaters, the studio bombarded television with ads that were so underwhelming that I heard from multiple parents that their kids had no desire to see the movie.

Another ingredient that sometimes makes a family movie succeed at the box office is child characters up front and center in the movie. If done with skill, such movies can appeal to kids and their parents. The movie Home Alone, for example, delighted kids because they saw one of their The Phantom Kidown succeeding against many adult challenges, and adults loved the movie because it reminded them when they were kids and wanted to be home alone. The movie I am reviewing here, The Phantom Kid, is another movie with kid protagonists up front and center, but a more extreme case. You see, although it is a western, every character in The Phantom Kid is played by a child. No doubt the filmmakers were inspired by the all-child Bugsy Malone, which was released the previous year, though that movie became a cult classic while The Phantom Kid fell into obscurity. An all-child cast in a movie is something pretty rare, so I knew I had to review this movie when I found a copy. Here's the video box's plot description: "Saddle up for big adventure, for the entire family, with the smallest hired guns in the West! Two vigilantes named Adam and Harmony are on a secret mission to bust a band of ruthless train robbers. Danger and suspense lurk everywhere in the town of Yellow Wood, where the courageous young cowboys go undercover. There, a pretty saloon girl tips them off about a deadly conspiracy behind the railway heists. Trailing the bandits, Adam learns of their villainous plan to blow the railroad to smithereens! A mysterious folk hero, known only as 'The Phantom Kid' rides to the rescue, but he and Adam are temporarily sidetracked. Armed only with a magical harmonica and a high-spirited horse named Dynamite, Harmony must single handedly round up the bad guys - before its (sic) too late!"

Although the above plot synopsis may sound like one for a typical western aimed at an adult audience (except maybe for the magic harmonica), the all child cast of The Phantom Kid without doubt makes this western one that is aimed primarily at a kiddie audience. So then the first question about the movie that should be answered is if kids will find the movie entertaining enough. Well, I think that many young kids would by tickled by it. With it focusing completely on kids and no pesky adults in sight, this alone might connect with them. Also, the fact that kids are constantly seen doing adult things - shooting guns, getting into barroom brawls, setting wagons on fire, throwing people through windows, playing musical instruments, dancing, riding horses, playing various adult occupations from barbers to sheriffs - are sights that I think many kids would like seeing. If one of their own can be seen doing adult stuff, maybe there's hope for them. But notice I said that young kids may find this stuff in the movie appealing. When it comes to older kids and their parents, more likely than not they will be less charitable towards the movie. For starters, the level of acting in The Phantom Kid is so atrocious, that even some young kids in the audience may be bothered by it. Nobody gives even a half decent performance, with each kid actor mumbling his lines in a painful monotone that suggests the kid actors weren't finding any fun playing cowboys and cowgirls. I know what some of you might be saying from this: "Oh, come on now, these are kids - you can't expect them to have a lot of previous acting experience or training!" To that, let me point out Bugsy Malone - the all-child cast in that movie was filled with youthful actors who knew what they were in and how to appropriately act in whatever scene they were placed in.

How and why The Phantom Kid managed to round up a complete cast of poor child actors are questions I am unable to answer with confidence. Maybe the talent pool in the UK and Israel (the movie was a co-production between both countries) is limited. Anyway, the child actors not only cannot act, they can't sing as well. Yes, The Phantom Kid is a musical... sort of. There are three songs in the movie, one sung over the opening credits, and two musical numbers in the middle. Why the movie is only a partial musical I also can't answer, but thank goodness the actors weren't made to sing more because their gawd-awful singing numbers may be the worst parts of the movie. I realize I'm being somewhat hard on the child actors, so let me say that there are plenty of problems in the movie not generated by them, but instead by the adults behind the camera. It's not like the child actors were given well-written characters to work with, for one thing. The heroic characters of Adam and Harmony not only have no personality, but no real background. What is it about them that made President Lincoln hire them in the opening sequence? We never know. The bad guys are also poorly constructed as well. Their ultimate scheme - to kidnap the governor of whatever state the events of the movie are taking place in - doesn't make that much sense when you see what they did before enacting that plan. (Why bring attention to themselves and the area with all of their previous train robberies?) There's a lot more that obviously was not thought of very well by the screenwriters, such as the whole business with the magic harmonica. At the beginning of the movie, it is established that the magic power the harmonica has is to hypnotize people into freezing in place, but only bad guys are affected by the power. Yet a few times later in the movie, we see various townspeople - complete innocents - get frozen in place when the harmonica is played.

However, when I think about all of what I saw in The Phantom Kid, I start to think that many of the incoherent and poorly illustrated moments may not be the fault of the writers. In the opening credits, there is not just a credit for the director, but also a credit listing for someone who directed "additional scenes". When that happens on a movie, it usually means one of two things: either the original director was dismissed midway through for some reason and replaced, or that the producers were so concerned about the final product in the post-production stage that they authorized reshoots. Whatever the reason was for another director for this movie, the end results are still in a mess. Brief linking footage feels missing at times, and sometimes whole important events like the rescue of the governor near the movie's climax are just not there. But it's not just with what's not there, but also what we actually get to see. It's obvious that the movie wasn't given a lavish budget, leading to painful cost-cutting like the same train used for three different trains, and some of the worst day for night photography you have ever seen. And while shooting in Israel's deserts might seem like a good idea, the scenery just doesn't look that spectacular; in fact, it makes the movie feel even cheaper. The biggest problem with the direction is that there is no passion to be felt anywhere at any time. There may be gun battles and fist fights, but they are sluggish and lamely choreographed. There may be an evil scheme afoot, but it's incoherent and slow in unfolding. And because the characters are played by kids, that of course means that a budding romance between Adam and a certain townswoman never gets beyond a peck on the cheek. Young kids are usually forgiving of shortcomings in kiddie films, and they may still like The Phantom Kid despite its problems. But their parents will find it so painful to sit through that they may be tempted to hit "stop" on their remote and pop in a copy of Cutthroats 9 instead in order to show their kids what a real western is like.

(Posted April 24, 2016)

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See also: Against A Crooked Sky, Mustang Country, Seven Alone