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Alex Stroup, editor

Raising Helen

New Garry Marshall flick tries to add new life to old plot

Thursday, May 27, 2004
by Alex Stroup, MousePlanet editor

First, let's just say that a movie that contains the line, “I'm a sexy man of God,” can't be all that bad. But Raising Helen gives it a shot.

According to the production notes, the script idea's birth was in the realization by co-author Beth Rigazio that if her sister died, she would end up with the kids. With the plot having been used in approximately 2,487 movies previously (not to mention untold numbers of television episodes), it is surprising that it took such an epiphany.

None of us are new to the story of the young party-person, not yet ready to be an adult, who suddenly ends up with a gaggle of children. Growth ensues and everybody ends up happy. And that's pretty much what happens. For a movie to succeed on territory so well explored, what is necessary is a new twist, or stratospheric performances from the actors.

© Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

The closest that director Garry Marshall comes to a new twist is in the reality of the situations. Marshall is a fluff entertainer (not that there is anything wrong with that), and it is surprising how restrained the comedy is in Raising Helen. Slapstick is minimal, and the laughs are generally of the “smile and chuckle politely” variety.

In return, though, we get a movie in which the situations feel real. It seems the characters are behaving reasonably. The traditional beginning for a movie such as this is that the new kids arrive and the adult tries to live an unchanged life, producing many comedic moments.

Here, Kate Hudson's Helen Harris understands the responsibility she's accepting and intends to adjust to it. She just isn't sure at first how to do that. For the most part, the story is surprisingly solid in its conservative (small “c,” people) view of family and the responsibilities associated with having children.

One can't help but feel that if you ignore that the children were entrusted to the single sister instead of the well-established married sister, that Dr. Laura herself wouldn't find too much to take issue with (there is also the odd fact that the a-religious Helen hooks up with John Corbett's Pastor Dan, and yet religion apparently plays no role in his life).

The real surprise of the movie is just how adult it feels. This isn't a teenager's fantasy of what life could be like, but almost a lecture to parents on the role they need to be playing.

Respecting that adultness, however, doesn't make it a good movie. Things run on way too long, particularly with a subplot involving a new job at a car dealership that, ultimately, serves no purpose other than providing a way to drive to New Jersey. Two staples of recent Disney comedy (also appearing in this summer's Princess Diaries 2), Hector Elizondo and Larry Miller show up in these scenes, and are thoroughly wasted.

Helen Mirren is also wasted as Helen's strict child-hating modeling agency boss. She gets to wear a fright wig but otherwise is only on screen for a few minutes total.

The kids are also a mixed bag. The youngest, Sarah (played by Abigail Breslin), has the most charm, but of course most of that is simply in being 7 years old. Her film (and real life) brother Henry (Spencer Breslin) has been getting a lot of big roles but he is pretty flat, not that he is given much to work with, and it is hard to see him making the transition through puberty. Finally, Hayden Panettiere's Audrey is the source of most of the trouble, being 14 and knowing everything and all that.

Garry Marshall is a sentimental director and most of that seems to be missing here. The death of the children's parents is glossed over and the reactions of the children strangely muted. The growing attraction between Helen and Pastor Dan is similarly flat.

In the end, you're left feeling that you watched something that could really have happened, but also realizing that most things that really happen are pretty boring.

© Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Kate Hudson has a lot of potential just waiting to be squandered. She is full of charisma and it is to be hoped that her career will regain the arc started with Almost Famous. To the degree that Raising Helen works (and it has its moments) it is because of Hudson's sheer determination to charm the audience into acceptance.

Joan Cusack, stuck with the matronly role of stereotypical suburban middle-class mom, ably supports Hudson in this effort. By the end of things, if you've connected at all with the story (an iffy prospect at best), then she transformed from a complete square into a mom that everybody should have.

There is a surprisingly solid core to the movie, but it just has no pace and not nearly enough surprises to keep things interesting. This might be a good DVD movie, and it'll show your kids just how lucky they are that you do things they hate.

If nothing else, you should eventually view this movie just to see John Corbett say, “I'm a sexy man of God,” with a straight face.


Raising Helen theatergoers get extra special treat

There is one reason you might want to go see Raising Helen in the theaters, and it is what will be shown before the movie. Attached to Raising Helen is a new animated short inspired by an idea from animation legend Joe Grant.

In a visual style reminiscent of something out of Fantasia, Lorenzo is a Merrie Melodie-type short with no vocals; just music and animation. The entire short is scored with the Osvaldo Ruggiero's famous “Bordoneo y 900” tango.

It's a dark one, though. It tells the story of narcissistic restaurant cat who eats only the best and taunts the street cats outside his window. He's particularly proud of his big fluffy tail, and when he taunts one particular cat with it, he is cursed.

Finding himself with a living tail—a violent living tail—they engage in a battle that combines martial arts with ballroom dancing that rises to a crescendo of an ending that you'll find surprising for Disney animation.

The animation is very well done, with a visual style that couldn't carry a feature, but at five minutes, settles into a mental groove without becoming a strain.

© Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

Though computer animated, the look is purely classic. An advanced rendering system was used to maintain the broad brushstrokes of original art, but allowed the three-dimensional manipulation of CGI. Roy Disney executive produced, and the Paris (since closed) and Burbank animation studios were heavily involved. Mike Gabriel directed the project after leaving Home on the Range due to creative differences.

The mood is very dark on this one. Don't assume that just because it is a Disney cartoon, it is safe for even the youngest of children. It is, though, creative in a way we haven't seen from Disney Animation in quite a while, and is worth seeking out. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that it will be included in the eventual Raising Helen DVD, so going to the theater may be your best shot. You can always leave when it's over.

Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Alex here.


Raising Helen is a Touchstone Pictures release.

Wide theatrical release: Friday, May 28, 2004.

Directed by Garry Marshall.

Screenplay by Patrick Clifton and Beth Rigazio.

Starring: Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Hayden Panettiere, Spencer Breslin, and Abigail Breslin.

Rated PG-13 for thematic issues involving teens.

Running time: 119 minutes.

Alex's Rating: 4 out of 10.


Lorenzo is a Walt Disney Pictures release.

Wide theatrical release: Friday, May 28, 2004 (attached to Raising Helen).

Directed by Mike Gabriel.

Rated G.

Running time: 5 minutes.

Alex's Rating: 7 out of 10.


Alex Stroup is a degreed librarian with an undergraduate degree in history. An avid reader, movie buff, and devoted “information junkie,” Alex currently lives and works in the Northern California Bay Area. Alex is also the CEO of MousePlanet.

Click here to contact Alex.


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